The National Democratic Movement has considerably raised the level of political debate in this country. And having brilliant young minds like Wayne Chen and Stephen Vacianni involved in national affairs must be a good thing for Jamaica. But a political party is a group of persons organized to acquire and exercise political power through election. Until the NDM wins seats in parliament it will remain a glorified think tank.


Bruce Golding protested when the NDM was left off the Electoral Advisory Commission. But those who the people have chosen must speak for them. Those they have rejected have no mandate to do so. The NDM has no elected MPs. If it is given representation, why not the Republican or Rastafarian parties?


Without Bruce Golding there would be no NDM, and he has admirably rejected his previous self-confessed political style of patronage and intimidation. But his 'holier than thou' attitude irritates many. Since his road-to-Damascus conversion Mr. Golding sees nothing but evil in Jamaica's political culture, which apparently was imposed by sinister powers from above on an unwilling populace. But every democratic country in the world has evolved a political environment suited to a large part of its voters’ needs. No one can fool all the people all the time, or lead an electorate where it does not want to go.


At its launching the NDM espoused the replacement of the Jamaican parliamentary system with an American style presidential model, which is more constitutional revolution than reform. Now the Jamaican body politic is in definite need of reform - entrenched patronage, violent garrisons and negligible growth are not hallmarks of faultless governance. But independent Jamaica has never experienced assassination, revolution or civil war. No one with a global perspective could consider our political system a complete failure. Nor is there any proof that presidential systems are more stable than parliamentary ones. If anything the evidence suggests the opposite.


Common sense surely argues against abandoning a system that has delivered 36 years of unbroken democracy for an untested alternative. But right or wrong, the NDM’s unconditional rejection of Jamaica’s governmental model was politically foolish. Jamaican independence was only achieved after years of sweat and blood. The NDM’s condemnations implied that the efforts of Busta and Norman had been in vain and their dreams had ended in dust. No people gladly rejects its entire past, but this was what the NDM was asking Jamaicans to do.


The public showed little interest in changing the parliamentary system . But NDM leaders ignored their dwindling poll numbers and preached separation of powers with ideological fervour - they knew what was right for the country even if the country didn’t. It didn’t take a seer to predict massive rejection for the party in the 1997 elections. And frankly the voters were right. The NDM displayed an astonishing lack of political judgement and completely ignored the electorate’s wishes. Why should anyone think they would show more acumen or sensitivity to the public will, if handed power?


None of the NDM’s major spokesmen – Golding, Chen, Vaccianni or Tufton - are what Jamaicans consider black, leading to persistent murmurings of ‘red man’ party. Some people think race should play no part in Jamaican politics, but race and politics are inseparable everywhere. The only current elected minority world leaders are Fujimoro in Peru and Janet Jagan in Guyana, and Jagan was the wife of the Indian majority President Chedi Jagan. Jamaica may well be the only country which has more than once elected a visible minority leader.


With our slavery past, race cuts both ways. When P.J.  Patterson first became Prime Ministers many whispered that he was unelectable because Jamaicans would never vote for a black man. Now some accuse him of racist electioneering. Jamaica is arguably the most racially tolerant place on earth and has in the past been remarkably colour blind in politics. But it would be unnatural if people did not have some instinctive affinity for those who looked like them.


Race is only a problem when it overrides all else. Fortunately in Jamaica this is not so. But it’s nonsense to pretend it does not matter. The NDM is broad based racially and has senior officials of all shades. Yet it had no unequivocally black person in the 1997 TV leadership debates. For a new political entity this was, at the least, poor political strategy. (The established JLP made the same blunder and it also cost them at the polls.)


The NDM also committed the worst political sin – it was boring. When Jamaicans said they wanted something new and different, they meant a party eschewing violence and corruption, not one without emotional appeal. A lot of Jamaicans like rambunctious political gatherings and enjoy having a symbol to cheer for, songs to sing-a-long to, a colour to identify with. PNP and JLP rallies are always cheering seas of orange and green. The NDM deliberately had no official colour. (Though it ended up using a washed out combination of white, yellow and blue.)


Responsible statesmen should channel such emotional tribalisms into constructive or at least harmless areas. But to pretend they don’t exist requires either utter idiocy or willful arrogance. The NDM did not flop because it chose the wrong colours. But its attitude towards the issue revealed a thinly veiled contempt for the populace which was roundly returned.


Jamaica certainly needs a third political alternative. Few people really believe the government is honest or proficient - the economy is crumbling, crime is soaring, and social unrest is rampant. Yet the official opposition looks even worse. The JLP’s leader has lost five elections in a row yet refuses to resign. His deputies spend more time fighting among themselves than challenging the government. The party can not even organize internal elections properly. An JLP/NDM merger has been talked about. But JLP officials can not even agree among themselves, so it is hard to imagine the party accommodating persons with a differing political approach.


One defeat means little in politics – British labour took 4 years to win its first seat in the late 19th century. NDM leaders remain well respected in general and the party is untainted by corruption or violence. If it becomes less arrogant and learns from its mistakes there is no reason why the NDM can not become a real political force. But if it keeps believing its own propaganda, the NDM will probably end up like all previous Jamaican third parties. Mutual admiration societies tend to inspire only disgust in others.

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