Does the practice of vote buying work?


Sunday, November 12, 2017

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There are three categories of constituencies existing on Jamaica's electoral landscape.

Firstly, there exists “guaranteed seats” or what are commonly known as the “garrisons”. In these constituencies the political and criminal enforcers dictate the state of political play. The stuffing of ballot boxes by the “dons” and his agents were for decades the norm, where voting results were oftentimes, in percentage turnout, in the high 90s but it was not unusual at other times to see results of over 100 per cent voting.

The Electoral Commission of Jamaica, supported by the appropriate laws passed by the Parliament to clean up the electoral system, have brought an end to a lot of those political shenanigans. But the system contains weaknesses and vulnerabilities that continue to persist. Most of these garrisons or “guaranteed “ constituencies are to be found in the parishes of Kingston, St Andrew, St Catherine and Clarendon. The two major political parties, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People's National Party, (PNP) has their set of garrisons among the 63 constituencies in Jamaica.

From a social, anthropological, economic and historical perspective the interplay of partisan politics and violence resulting in forced loyalty of the constituents to one major political party or the other, created a landscape which is both intriguing and revealing to the exercise of academic enquiry, studies and documentation.

Take the recent two political garrison constituencies of South West St Andrew and Southern St Andrew now represented by PNP Members of Parliament Angela Brown Burke and Mark Golding respectively. These two PNP garrisons were once JLP garrisons controlled by the JLP's Wilton Hill in SW St Andrew and the JLP's Clem Tavares in Southern St Andrew. The people were driven out through the use of unspeakable violence and the use of Governmental power through the Ministry of Housing, by the bulldozing of various squatter settlements which saw the mass migration of Labourites to Central St Catherine and Central Clarendon where the people regrouped and re-established two JLP garrisons which are still operating in our present day political reality.

Olivia “Babsy” Grange of the JLP is the present Member of Parliament for St Catherine Central while the JLP's Mike Henry is the Member of Parliament for Clarendon Central.

Western Kingston's process of consolidation into a JLP garrison, formerly in PNP hands, with Eddie Seaga followed the same trajectory, only in the opposite direction to the two PNP garrisons mentioned before.

Violence, clientelism and paternalistic politics not only created these garrisons for the PNP and JLP but maintained them, and demand total and absolute loyalty to one political side or the other… from the people. Failure to comply with the existing political culture evokes consequences of terror that are heart-rending and simply deadly. A climb up the political and structural landscape from the garrison is the second set of political formations called “safe seats”. In these constituencies election contests are held, even fairly, but the structural margin of support for one political party in relation to the other is helplessly skewed to one side, so that outside of a major national swing, the same political party wins constantly when elections are called.

The opposite to the safe seats are the marginal or swing constituencies. There are 18 such in Jamaica and it is this third category of constituencies that often decide which party forms the Government. In 2011 the PNP won 14 of the 18 marginal constituencies and formed the Government. In the 2016 General Election and 2017 by-elections the JLP won back 12 of the 18 competitive seats and have remained in power as the Government of Jamaica. In these 18 competitive seats, as in the SE St Mary by-election, electioneering by the two major political parties becomes intense as the ability of these seats to change existing political sides is very strong and critical to which political party gains and holds power in the country.

It is in these marginal constituencies where excessive resources are spent by both major political parties to gain the advantage. Vote buying and other methods of persuasion and manipulation are employed. The sociological make-up of these constituencies and the communities' formation therein, where kinship, bloodline continuity and family linkages are broader, deeper and stronger … make these constituencies less susceptible to political violence and terror as tools of the political success.

Other inducements of a softer nature, for example monies, building material and other favours, are used to galvanise the voters to a choice of one political party over the other. The performance of the party representative in a constituency of that type, particularly, leading to the next election also play a crucial role. In this third category of constituencies where the vote is very badly needed by one side over the other the way is wide open for the “vote seller” to manipulate the “vote buyer”. And here is where the fun and games begin. For indeed, what guarantee does a vote buyer have that a voter marking a secret ballot and alone behind the screen of a polling booth will vote for a party whose agent may have given that voter monies to do so?

The South East St Mary recent by-election has had lots of charges and counter charges about vote buying leading up to election day on October 30, 2017. Our discussion here is not only timely but a useful exercise as it provides an opportunity for extending an invitation for interested persons to rethink and relook on the assumptions and presumptions made over the years regarding vote buying during political election campaigns. And so as we look more deeply into this “ticklish” issue, vote buyers need to realise that the practice has always been a vote sellers game. For indeed the “buyers” and complainers about vote buying continue to simplistically underrate the capacity of the characteristics displayed by our cultural hero — Anansi — in matters such as political contests.

Even those complaining about vote buying against one political side are equally busy buying votes for their side. The joke in all of this is that the seller of votes now asks for purchase from all political sides, including from independent candidates, in each election, and having had a successful sale for his or her one vote, joins with gusto, any protesting group demonstrating against vote buying, and for a fee, of course.

The moral perspective in respect to the topic is inarguably a very sound one, and in truth, the practice of vote buying and selling cannot be an ideal in the operation of our democracy. But this inclination continues to exist firstly because of some amount of economic need but more importantly, also an expression of growing mistrust in politicians who have won seats but cannot be found when the people need them, especially during personal or community emergencies.

The attitude by many voters is to dig for what they can get prior to election, as they run the risk of their representative becoming missing in action. Or should that be missing in inaction? Vote selling is therefore a symptom or manifestation of some deep-seated misgivings and experiences in our politics by the people in respect to the unwholesome behaviour of some of our politicians once they have won the vote.

Vote selling has never been only about a simple issue of greed or even reasonable economic need. It is about much more. The radio and television high-visibility politicians within the PNP have used the vote buying mantra to rationalise their defeat and deflect from their organisational failings not only in the constituency of South East St Mary but also in the 2016 General Election won by the JLP.

Victims of their own propaganda and self-mesmerism, they are too articulate and bright to lose politically. So it is somebody else's fault, even as they appear in the media announcing that their supporters could be, and were bought by the JLP. How insulting!, especially since there is no evidence to prove that die-hard PNP supporters in SE St Mary swung to the JLP.

Shalman Scott is a former Mayor of Montego Bay and a political analyst.




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