Reading political tea leaves: Jamaica voters still ignored, massively, but who should worry?

Please do not insult me by talking in weeping tones about low voter turnout, especially, if you are a politician. It is no secret to those seeking elected office who is on the electoral rolls, and by extension who is not registered to vote. With that information, for any politician to not engage any potential voter points to the inherent corruption of our system of democracy. Strong words? Maybe.

I have been back in Jamaica just over three years, and I am a registered voter, never having had the opportunity to cast my ballot in the country of my birth. I have some of the excitement of any first-time voter. I need little to get me to go to the polls to cast my vote; I am a prime meal in the menu of electoral desires. So, let me pose a few simple questions to those who seem driven to make a living getting paid out of the public purse to represent me.

  • Do I need to tell you my political preference, if it exists? No! Assume I’m neutral.
  • Do you want to try to convince me to vote for you? You should!
  • Do you think you need to let me know, directly, who you are and what you have done or are thinking of doing? If not, why not?

Now, with those simple questions posed, where can I go?

I have not seen any political candidate darken my door for either general election in February 2016 or local government election in November 2016. That’s a disgrace in its contempt.

I wrote a blog post in February, entitled Just tell me if you love me: the outcasting in Jamaican politicsbefore the general election. I wondered if ‘I may not be who the representatives want involved at all’ because the politicians were interested in ‘keep them poor, keep them hungry, keep them under control’. I do not fit that profile: I am not hungry, literally, or for most of the promises that politicians may be offering. But, I do want something from elected representatives. I want my mind tested. I wrote those months ago: ‘The lack of willingness to engage people on substantive issues is one of the things that has made me wonder who is being feted in all the political hullabaloo.’ That thought still has relevance.

Many politicians show that they are afflicted by the national disease of low productivity and are work-shy: ‘the ‘work’ is talking to the people’. The current Opposition showed that they were little interested in any broad dialogue with the nation, even to the extent of crying off what might have been showpiece televised debates. They got a real taste of how well that went down, but being shown the door in February. Don’t satisfy yourself by saying it was by one seat that PNP lost. They lost by many voters from their own known party support staying indoors, whether to eat the curry goat or other box food that had been offered or just to tune in to ‘Days of our lives’.

Many parish councillors are similarly afflicted. But, unlike MPs, some of whose work is broadcast for us to marvel at, the workings of local government in Jamaica is a dark secret to many. Imagine what life may be like, if, as in many munipalities in the US, one could watch local access TV to see what local government is doing. Go check out the website for the City of Alexandria, Virginia, for example, and watch its archived video of meetings, including yesterday’s. Or, just check out it’s live feed that promotes the many attractive things that are going on in the city. Oh, you don’t have anything much of which you’re proud to show? My bad!🙄 

The other thing that was true last February and was re-inforced this month is the following, which I wrote nine months ago: ‘My suspicion is that the PM has gotten locked into a mode of only being passionate and verbose when riled and is not up for moderate or moderated discussion. Maybe, it’s an age thing: getting cantankerous. I can relate to that. Maybe, it’s some other physiological thing.’ Whatever I might have thought was behind that tendency to be cantankerous, I could not have imagined it would be directed at her own party! What kind of election strategy tells you that yelling about your fearlessness and calling out your party supporters in public for showing they disliked chosen candidates, and issuing barely veiled threats to them is a sure-fire winner? People in a constituency have a tendency to know who and what they want and what they think works. For the people? You’re joking, right? 

Usually, when people say ‘Have you lost it?’ they mean your mental faculties, but it can also be ‘the vote’. November 28 is proof positive, I would argue. Going from total control of municipal government, to ‘no count’ takes a certain skill, which I as a coach would not be teaching to any team that I hoped would succeed. I tell kids I coach: 

  • give yourself the best chance to win, not the best chance to lose; 
  • own goals must be avoided;
  • don’t attack your team mates; save that for the opponents;
  • remember what brought you success, forget what caused you defeat.

It’s not rocket science.

But, getting back to me, and not for narcissistic reasons. I wrote in February: ‘I want to be engaged, properly’. Then, ‘I want[ed] to know how PNP can step up the progress so my child can believe she has a bright future here. I want[ed] JLP to go further in showing me how to get from poverty to prosperity. I’m a product of both messages, after all.’

‘I’m waiting and I’m patient’, I wrote before the national election. That’s still the case. Except…

I am convinced that people like me are a threat to politicians. I can think, independently, and have little need for the spoils that politicians can share out to sway significant numbers. I’m a threat, not because, if so desired, I can vote you out, but if pressed I can plan to replace you. I may have no personal desire to be a politician, but I know many who do, and who are prepared to think about doing that outside certain existing party constraints.

No one lives for ever, and no group of politicians and political hacks lasts forever in a democracy. Jamaica is a democracy that has many strong-minded people who have decided to withdraw from voting, because they despise and distrust politicians and political processes that have promised often but delivered rarely. These are not apathetic people: they are antipathetic

The politics of poverty-maintenance and garrison building is derelict, like many of the structures in such places. Waiting in the ‘food line’ of political favours is demeaning to anyone who can think stand up for themselves. Like bushing offers no permanent solution to overgrown areas, trying to buy votes with ‘make-work’ schemes is a never-ending exercise, and the price has to keep rising. 

Those antipathetic voters are people who can move and shake in other walks of life and many have yet decided that they are not going to move and shake to the voting station. Some, I suspect, have seen their political will exercised in other, equally discreet, ways, say as funders of party activities. (Think back to the multiple campaigns going on within the PNP during the general election. Wasn’t that political power being exercised in ways as powerful, or more so, than the vote?)

Politicians who forget what representing the people means often end up in the same place, and it’s called ‘out of office’. Fine, if you have other skills, and have built up possible alternative work. But, ‘retired MP’ on a resume has a funky ring. Of course, some lose their position for the very reason they were elected, and that tells you that something is indeed “rotten in the town (sic) of Denmark” (to repeat a poignantly misstated remark).

Finally, the buck has a nasty way of stopping where it should. If you want to be a politician who dissembles and tries to sell the image of a ‘Nirvana-like’ state that you have created, yet people can see and smell and taste and wade through the squalour that really exist, then I suggest you find yourself auditioning as a stand-up comic. In that case, if the laughter stops, don’t be surprised by where people find the supply of rotten fruit and vegetables to throw.


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.

Jamaica’s upcoming local government elections: tracing and comedy trump policy issues in first debate.

If our local political strategists are on point, they have whetted our appetites by serving up just the kind of thing Jamaicans love in politics–tracing matches. People are highly partisan and really don’t have much real interest in substantive issues of policy, when politicians are in direct discussions: keep all of that for seminars and conferences. Instead, give them the stand up, knock down, insulting, belittling exchanges that who is bull or cock chicken or wildest Amazon. This comment on Twitter summed it up: 
Moreover, when it comes to policies, politicians and supporters want to associate all successes, so, many of the exchanges are like when two children speak: ‘I’m the best, stuff the rest! I did this, not you, nah, nah, nah!’ Debating isn’t what they do–take it from one who knows more about public arguments than most, presenter Dionne Jackson-Miller. Instead, it’s debasing each other that counts.

Well, we got this last night during the first local government elections debate, which was televised lived. 

I had expressed reservations why a nationally elected politician, who’s also the minister of local government–Desmond McKenzie, who has been also a Mayor of Kingston and St. Andrew–was included in the team of the ruling national party. Silly boy! Local government isn’t important in the lives of Jamaicans, except in its absence of positive influence. With that in mind, it was appropriate to bring out first the big guns. For that reason, the Opposition had to bring out its biggish guns, in the form of a local politician who is also on the national stage, namely a PNP National Executive Vice President, Angela Brown-Burke. So, I understand better the positioning for the first debate, which was about the relevance of local government.

What that meant was that little of substance came from the non-debate. But, we got some super sound bites (no pun intended with that which was most captivating): the most notable is currently about whether mosquitoes have bitten you:, uttered by a young JLP candidate, Keneisha Allen, who took on Mrs. Brown-Burke, and got under her skin do much that she was dismissed as being “too young to understand”–a remark that deals with no arguments but says so much about certain attitudes and mentality towards opposing views. 

Honestly, I wasn’t gripped by the exchanges and think most watchers felt the same. So, let’s hope that things are set up better for the second debate, next week. I would give the edge to the JLP after the debate, not least because they have the national reins, which have good economic things to show (even though an honest assessment would say these are largely the results of the defeated PNP’s economic management). I would also say that Kingston’s mayor doesn’t stand as a paragon of good municipal management of a space showing so many signs of decay and dysfunctional existence, even if large parts of this cannot be fixed by local initiatives. In that regard, it might have been a mistake to have her lead the opposition charge, but she had a good mix of municipal and national relevance, so probably seemed well-suited. 

So, onto the second and last debate on November 23.