Everald Warmington, MP, would have us believe that the 48 percent of Jamaica’s electorate who do not vote are a source of problems in our political system. I say, on the contrary: they are a symptom. If those non-voters were to cast ballots we could end up with a situation that, in my mind is worse than what results from their not voting. It could seem as if they had not voted.
Jamaica has a first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, which gives to victor in elections all of the representative power. In other words, just being ahead of your opponents means that all of the spoils are yours and your party’s. So, we could have the 48 percent voting, and they call cast their ballots for one party evenly across the country, and the remaining 52 percent vote for another party in similar fashion, and that party would take all of the parliamentary seats.
In many countries that would not be terrible. But, in Jamaica, it is the tip of a major disaster. Our system of politics is so tribal—JLP or PNP—and vindictive that when ‘it’s our time’ the winners make sure the losers know what they have lost—power. So, the 52 percent ‘make life hell’ for the rest. That’s perhaps an extreme portrayal, but it’s what’s at the bottom of our system. If our politicians were more prepared to represent the nation then we would be less worried. But, they want to take care of their own. So, the 48 percent lose big time.
The system would be at its most obviously ridiculous if the 63 parliamentary seats were each decided by a single vote in each case in favour of one party. Then, we would have all 63 seats going to PNP or JLP and all because of 63 people, out of a total electorate of just over 1.7 million. Imagine that.
I don’t know if the non-voters have made that analysis, but it would not be difficult to do and not unlikely to have been done.
If we had a proportional representation system, we would end up with a legislative body that reflected the 52:48 split in votes, and that would be near parity. Depending on how we let the legislature work, the 52 percent could still railroad the rest, but it’s less likely.
The UK has wrestled with this problem for decades. It was mainly a two-party system, but a third party started to get a large proportion of popular votes. However, the geographical shape of electoral seats meant that this party hardly won any seats in Parliament. The unfairness was clear. But, things reached a point where that party managed to get enough seats to start to matter. The larger parties needed to get their support to be able to win elections overall. They did not get proportional representation, but they started to matter more. The last set of UK elections resulted in a situation where one of the two major parties needed to get the support of the third party to be able to form a government–a deal had to be brokered.
The Tories had got the sweetheart and their ‘marriage of convenience’ with the Liberal-Democrats has now gone down in history.
I think that Jamaicans have acted rationally in many ways over the past 50-odd years since Independence. They have seen that votes matter less and have decided to vote less. That is the clear trend. Look at the voting data. Votes don’t count that much when seats are skewed in favour of one or other party. That withdrawal has been one of the signs of a lack of faith in the political system. That could change if all votes counted equally. That, of course, would not meet the approval of many politicians who depend on being able to boss and bully because they have the margin of votes to hold a seat, even though that margin may be slim in some places. It also means that holding onto that seat become much more important. The FPTP system is one reason why Jamaican politicians do not get held to account in a way that they should.
Some politicians like to label voters as the problem and do not see that they are as big a problem. Not only do we have a screwy system of voting, we also have a set of candidates offered to voters that clearly do not appeal. That’s also what non-voting shows. Dud 1 or Dud 2? Neither, thank you. It may be hard on the ego of would be national leaders and builders of legacies, but like when children dislike okra or spinach, it’s just the truth.
So, will Jamaica do anything about this? The basic problem was aired soon after the last general elections in Jamaica, in a clear article by Ken Jones (not related 🙂 ). The issues have not changed.
Most nations use some forms of proportional representation. However, former British Empire countries tend to hold onto FPTP. It’s time to let go of this relic of our colonial past.