Jamaica’s election: civics comes into focus

Jamaica’s recent general election has been as close as it can get, with the current official count giving the JLP 32 seats to the PNP 31; that’s admirably slim and fits well with the overall vote, which was reported to be split 50.1% to 49.9% in favour fo the JLP, on Election Day. Those who voted seemed almost evenly split in their sentiments; and the majority (about 52 percent) those who could vote were less inclined to vote–that has implications. What this tight election race has done is focus much of national attention on the election outcome and the process of getting there. That’s been helped by modern technology, especially social media, that has allowed almost minute-by-minute information about many aspects of the process, with pictures, sound, and opinion all combining to grab our attention, down to pictures of the last evening meals being delivered for those counting. Kudos to all–paid journalists and anyone with a desire to share information.

Like many things in life, the devil is in the details. But, it’s often only when things get tight and squeaky that people focus on those details. Jamaicans are quick to show distrust, and the mere hint of change seemed to generate all manner of accusations–stolen votes, lost boxes, etc. We are also quick to clutch at straws, and that means simplistic explanations take hold fast, and people don’t bother much with thinking through what they say, hear, or do. But, putting those traits to one side, what the tense and tight race has done is focus more minds on voting. We’ve had to look at how people were instructed, how and where they made their marks, did any voter or official try to subvert the process, etc.

Now, those who did not vote may have to reconsider their decision while pondering if their idle ballots could have swung races. They need not lose too much sleep because the arithmetic might not have changed in any material way: we could have had tight races, but with bigger vote totals. The probability of that is less though, as the vote totals rise. But, the non-voter may now feel that he/she might at least have a dog in the fight next time. (As an aside, we need to take a good look at voters’ lists. because we now do not clean them out each time, as we used to, but keep adding, which means we may have a bunch of ‘fictitious’ voters lurking, some of whom are dead and gone :() That may also spur those who ignored the uncommitted to make more efforts to get their commitment.

The close election has meant that processes which were always in place, but really didn’t matter too much when the margin of victory/defeat was wide, now seemed important, because that margin was wafer thin.

We always only get preliminary results on election night, but those usually hold and any announcement of the overall seat outcome can stand while the official recount takes place the day after the election. Yet, many people were expressing puzzlement about the need for recounts. Well, hopefully, they now know that’s what always happens.

Disputes over ballots always occur, and our system gives those who are unhappy with the official recount the option to go to court for a magisterial decision, which is final.

We always have spoilt ballots and rejected ballots, but the number of those is usually very small and rarely matters to an overall result. But, in some seats they may do, say when the margin is only in the 10s.

Election officials always make mistakes. They are often working under a lot of pressure, and over a very long day; and as the day goes on, fatigue sets in. They may have little option for rest of replacement. (For what it’s worth, one auxiliary policeman told me that he was not going to be provided with lunch during his day at the polls. I hope that was not the case for election officials. I know party agents were going to get food because I saw it in the back of cars.) So, while the transcription error that was reported to be the major reason why one seat swung away from the person originally declared as the winner (in St. Mary South East), these things happen. The official recount is important because it has a high level of scrutiny of every aspect of voting, including accounting for every ballot paper, and ensuring that all arithmetical counts are correct. (At the margin, we also need to accept that, even with the best will in the world, the training of officials may fall apart because of late withdrawals of more-experienced officials and the need to use someone who is less experienced.) Again, the fast critics can think if they want to help the process by putting themselves up for training and deepening the pool of available officials.

More people are now focused on the prospects of how easy it will be to govern. The reality of that will be immediate. The House of Representatives must elect a Speaker from its members; that’s usually a member of the larger party; that will take the JLP down to 31, tied with the PNP, and the Speaker will have the casting vote. The supposed impartiality of the Speaker comes into question immediately (as noted today by a very sharp lawyer, Linton Gordon). The slim margin means a lot of orchestration of Parliamentary business because the luxury of having a majority is only as good as the members all being available when needed. The party whip for the ruling party will need to oversee carefully travel plans and other schedules during the times of passage of legislation. Those who need bathroom breaks near voting time had better be careful 🙂

The new government will be pressing to fulfill its pre-election promises, and if delay by the Opposition can do anything it can sow seeds in the minds of many that promises are not being kept.

The slim margin means also that divisions within parties need to be well managed. We have not heard much about haggling over portfolios and Cabinet positions, but it’s going on. One Parliament reopens, ticking off one of the majority to the extent that he/she decides to switch sides would be potentially a disaster for the government as the PM would no longer have the simple arithmetic majority in the elected house. (On the opposite side, if one of the opposition members decided to walk across the floor, then the breathing space for the government gets wider.)

The idea of a snap election to secure a larger margin will be in many minds, but of course, nothing is certain, and that election could end up with more of the same, or a loss for the current winners (individually or collectively). Either party needs to be wary of anything that may prompt the need for a by-election.

These are interesting times and the metaphors of navigating the choppy, unchartered waters will be lots of play. But, it also puts out democracy to test. Our country isn’t blessed only with bright, articulate, confident people; we’ve a big core of people who are not well-educated, driven by emotions, hesitant about their lives and on the brink of survival daily. We all need assurance that the system of government is intact and remains well set to protect us all, even though many will feel the sting of the biases that are present.

While we do not have a coalition government in place, we have the makings of a coalescence of politics–it may be short-lived, but it’s there. The swings in policies may be less, because of that, and the inclusiveness of policies and politics may be more, because of it. Let’s say that’s one of my hopes.



Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)