Some takeaways from Jamaica’s local government elections

The votes have barely been fully counted, but there are many take-aways from yesterday’s local government elections, and many of them do not need much data to be clear. Here goes:

General take-aways from local government elections

  • The current Opposition, PNP, was in disarray for the national elections, played around for a few months after that doing so-called internal reflections, did little to change themselves or their message, and got a royal raspberry yesterday, losing overall control of parish councils, including plum locations like Kingston and St. Andrews. If Nero were wearing an orange toga, it would be clear what was going on, and that the party leader had her finger on the right button saying there’s”something rotten in the town (sic) of Denmark”.
  • Jamaican local government politics is a mere fig leaf for people’s notions of national electoral issues.
  • Those involved in local government are not going to advocate for change, as that is likely to make their political lives worse, not better.
  • Money matters, and those with control of national budgets should have the upper hand with regard to local government issues, and also the upper hand when it comes to guiding local government election outcomes. Only a blinkered mole would not see J$600 million spent ahead of elections as anything but thinly disguised vote-buying. Call a bushwhacker a bushwhacker! The gem this time was calling the elections in the period just before Christmas, when it could feasibly be argued that this was normal seasonal work. But, give my ailing brain a break with that empty rhetoric!
  • Local government has been serially denuded of real power over local outcomes as many implementing agencies are national and handle local issues as part of their logical geographical division of operations.
  • Local government needs a substantial base for raising local taxes to address local issues. I’m not sure that the national appetite for more fiscal burdens exist at this time, and also past performance gives little confidence that parish councillors are not money grabbing weasels, in general…with due respect to those who are merely rats sniffing out cheese–and we know the allure of cheese.screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-9-26-56-am
  • Turnout was low: preliminary figures indicate that about 30 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. But, that was no surprise, especially as indications are that the debates made many people less likely to vote.

Some thoughts on voting turnout

It would be nice for many reasons to see higher turnouts, but that won’t necessarily change things in Jamaican politics. One of our burdens is sticking with a first-past-the-post system, in a country where many people may live in so-called ‘garrison’ constituencies, ie one party has a virtual lock on certain seats, so voting against that party is often a wasted vote in term of results in that constituency. Winning by one vote with a 100% turnout isn’t different from winning by one vote with, say a 45% turnout. In fact, the first situation may be terrible, because it means that say 49.99% of voters do not get their choice, which is worse when that percentage represents a large absolute number of people.

However, if some forms of proportional representation were in place, votes would mean much more. Those who are really looking for independent candidates would have more reason for casting votes for such people if they knew that their aggregate voting could matter. Likewise, and more obvious, if you were in favour of the minority party in a garrison, but knew that your party’s aggregate voting was important, then voting behaviour ought to change.

I’ve said before that low turnout is not necessarily reflective of voter indifference, but possibly a large amount of voter antipathy. People see much wrong with political processes, including candidate selection at one end and what politicians do ‘in the name of the people’, much of which is shameful, if we are brutally honest. Many people do not want to be associated with that shamefulness. 

One of the pieces of theatre during the local government debates was really on point, when one candidate rolled out a ‘scandal list’. Imagine that capturing the imagination of people more than an ‘achievements list’.

Sadly, the latest election is another page of Jamaican politics which is really about scraping the bottom of the barrel. Politics is not to where our brightest aspire. We also suffer from the limited talent pool that exists, not just in politics, but in management and decision-making in general. Our decades of talent drain has taken its toll on our output quantity and quality, and our productivity, and politics has not been spared in that ‘race to the bottom’.

I’ve been saying it (Jamaica) must get better, soon. That’s not because I’m impatient, but because all things become habits, if done long enough. Mediocrity in politics is no exception.