The preliminary election results give the opposition JLP victory in yesterday’s national elections, by a slim margin of seats. They also look to have won the popular vote in what was a lower than expected turnout in both percentage and total voters terms. Congratulations to the winners of individual seats and to the leader of the JLP, Andrew Holness, who now has the privilege and difficult task of forming a government and putting his party’s proposals into a coherent set of policies.
It’s a sad irony that this was my first time voting in Jamaica and I number amongst a continually dwindling set of voters. I’ve written before about the chronic decline in voter interest in Jamaican elections, believing that in its essence it was sending an important message about how politicians and politics, as currently shaped, were losing the war to interest the average Jamaican. I think some read that as a good thing because they thought that their bases of so-called ‘diehards’ were firm and that low turnout was actually in their favour. Wrong! Some of that reasoning cannot hold anymore, and the failure to appeal to a wider and growing electorate was to me a terrible mistake that needs to be corrected for the sake of keeping national democracy healthy.
I think part of that misreading was evident in the tactics used by the governing PNP during the election campaign–some will say they forget their essence, which is ‘people’ and ‘national’. I hold no brief for any party, and guard my independence fiercely. However, I cannot understand wanting to go after the leader of a party which touted the message of ‘From Poverty to Prosperity’ by attacking what was his personal symbol of that message–the house he was in the process of building. Yes, I think there are legitimate questions to be asked of public officials, especially those who seek political offices, about their financial affairs, and the need for transparency in such dealings is absolutely clear to me. Having asked questions on this topic though, the PNP didn’t let go, and made its interest a little strange by that hanging on like a terrier with a prey in its mouth. I think that seemed distasteful to many Jamaicans, who either saw themselves in Mr. Holness’s shoes, or could relate to him because their parents had sought to do the same. It may be that PNP had some dirt on the dealings, but if so, bring to the fore, not go on with innuendo.
The other misreading was the matter of the national debates. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the ‘outcasting’ of electors, and that process mattered most to people who had no fixed ideas about voting. For a campaign that was set to be short many hankered for clarity–not surprising in a country with an uncommitted share of voters big enough to win an election if there were an Uncommitted Party. That clarify for most was likely during debates.The repeated refusal to debate was sad, in part because it said ‘No’ to those who sought clarity. But it was also not truly surprising from a government that seemed to have lost sight of the true value of communication with people.
I think that lack of debate cemented the notion of not seeming to really care what most people thought. It was easy to hark back to recent scandals and see a pattern of disregard for the electorate. Much of that disregard came over as ‘You don’t need to know’.
What was telling in that strategy was the voices of the government that were not heard following it. Party solidarity was not there. I won’t name names but notable clear thinkers and good commutators in the government were silent on that messaging.
I’m not going to belabour that more now.
What is now going to be tough is shaping policy. The JLP set its stall to capture public sentiments about being crushed by austerity. I’m in no doubt that Jamaica has done an amazing feat staying with the IMF program, both given its past performance and the burden it placed on people. In many countries the measures could easily have toppled a government or led to serious civil disorder. That it didn’t do the latter says some good things about Jamaicans.
The 10-point plan, especially the tax break was a master stroke and had no defence or good counter from the government. I think the figuring is a bit flaky but the essence is clear: put money into people’s hands and they will be happier. Yes, it may mean personal gain for national strain, but it’s a winner. Whoever becomes finance minister, though, has to mesh that give-away into a budget that has little room for it.
The wonks will lose many people in arguing about the economy, so messages must be clear. I’m not going to spell out my thinking on how policy should go, just point to some rocks ahead.
Oil dividend. Low oil prices have made our economic road much easier over the past year, giving us tangibly much lower prices, whether in electricity or petroleum bills or keeping a lid on other prices. It has also made out balance of payments better than it would have been. But, that was a windfall that can’t last. How can we capture those gains for the longer term? Many ideas are out there, and some involve changes in energy use. How will the new government face up to this task?
Exchange rate. The sliding Jamaican dollar was a necessary condition; in nerdy terms we were uncompetitive and the rate needed to be adjusted to help fix that. Those who understand purchasing power party may argue that we are still not there. But, the fall in the nominal exchange rate is often seen or portrayed as a sign of failure, even when it’s essential. Mr. Shaw will point to his keeping the rate stable in the past. I’m one of those who thinks that that stability without other adjustments sowed seeds for problems that remain unresolved. Will stability of the rate be a ‘be all’ for the new government?
Youth unemployment. One group that has suffered for too long, and that has yet to be taken seriously is Jamaica’s young people. (Data on their voting will be interesting.) The mantra of ‘children are our future’ is meaningless when you have youth unemployment of 30-40 percent. Investing in education is a waste of resources if you merely do that to export the educated to help build other countries. Our ‘brain drain’ isn’t new but its crippling effects are clear in terms of our productivity (including both quality and quantity) of goods and services we generate.
Allied to that economic waste is the options it fosters. Crime and its lure look better when you have little hope. Idle hands, etc. The lure is greater when the chances of being caught and punished ate low. Jamaica has majored in making crime profitable. The opining of JCF never addressed properly crimes social underpinning.
We’ve been lucky to have not had a major social explosion but you can’t keep relying on luck.
I see the sound economy as the bedrock on which a better Jamaica can be built. We have to fix lots of things, social, constitutional, and more. If the recent macroeconomic gains are lost, it won’t take long for a bigger unraveling. The IMF will work with any government, but it has its remit, and won’t let ‘any set’ of numbers pass.
I don’t envy those who will form the government but wish them well. I’m happy to say that I’ve seen other countries dig themselves out of economic holes and go on to be much better places. Politicians will keep playing games as long as people let them. Part of the analysis to come is how people’s willingness to let them play games has reached an end. How people’s voices get heard effectively will be another major challenge in coming months. My ears are open.