Is vote-buying a growing cancer?


Thursday, November 09, 2017

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Vote-buying is nothing new. In Jamaica, one could regretfully say that it is almost a tradition. In this instance, Garfield Higgins is totally correct when he wrote words to that effect in his Jamaica Observer column in The Agenda this past Sunday. Higgins wrote: “Bribery and variant forms of it have been part of the electoral landscape in Jamaica for decades”. And this is true.

However, using this as a defence against People's National Party (PNP) Chairman Fitz Jackson's complaint about vote-buying does not excuse it if it happened. While Higgins accused Jackson of having a short memory, and pointed to instances in which there was certainly an appearance of it being done by the PNP in the past, it cannot be an exoneration of anyone engaged in the practice.

Higgins further wrote: “Mass disaffection from the political process is a main contributing factor that has expedited the growth of the cancer on our democracy, as evidenced in the decreasing involvement of the national electorate, especially over the last 25 years.”

There are anecdotal stories that vote-buying (or vote-bartering) started in the first general election in 1944. According to the stories, the bribery in those days was not in money, but in salt fish and flour. Small wonder, then, that in the 1950s at least one politician reportedly said “salt fish is better than education”. Indeed, salt fish is part of our culture in more ways than one.

But bribery then was never on the scale that we hear about in the last few elections. At the very least, since 2007, there have been alarming reports that some voters were paid not to vote in some constituencies.

So, while “mass disaffection from the political process” is a contributing factor to the growing cancer of vote-buying, being paid not to vote could exaggerate the impression of the extent of mass disaffection. Indeed, this could be called 'induced disaffection'. But there is, indeed, mass disaffection from the political process today, especially among the youth.

In the elections in the 1990s disaffection was caused mainly because of the splits in the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) — between those for and against the continued leadership of Edward Seaga. It divided the campaign funds and the organisational effort of the JLP. This was not only because of the internal split, but also the formation of the National Democratic Movement in 1995.

Another reason for the disaffection since the 1990s was not only that the policies of both parties seemed to be the same, but also that ordinary tangible benefits that people hankered for had been met.

Columnist Dorlan Francis, as well as Higgins, loves to point to the booming economy in the 1960s. Francis led last Sunday's edition of The Agenda with a similar commentary. But who did it boom for? Not the poor and downtrodden. In terms of statistics, the economy was booming in the 1960s, but children went to primary schools barefooted.

The public hospitals, especially in Kingston, were in a deplorable state. At Victoria Jubilee Hospital, mothers with newborns were placed two to one single-width bed. Housing was deplorable for poor people who did not get one of the relatively few houses built then. Indeed, it was an angry electorate that rejected the Hugh Shearer-led JLP Government and voted in Michael Manley and the PNP by a landslide in 1972.

But the oil crisis put the economy out of whack by December 1973. The bauxite levy announced in 1974 was not enough, bearing in mind that free education was announced in 1973. There were hardships caused by the oil crisis and also sabotage in the removal of food from shops. The food promptly returned to the shelves hours after the October 30, 1980 election even before the new Government, led by Edward Seaga, had been sworn in.

After more taxes and lay-offs in the public sector in the 1980s, the PNP returned to power, led by Michael Manley, in 1989. In 1992, P J Patterson became prime minister.

There were more cars on the roads in the 1990s than ever before. More houses were built for the working class. By the end of the 1990s most people had a cellphone. And the cheap foreign food, even if unhealthy, meant less hunger. So why bother to vote if expectations have been met? What more can politicians promise except less taxes?

A whole new generation has come up spending all their time texting on their cellphones, using their computers, and being addicted to modern technology. This causes disinterest in everything around them, including elections and voting.

All of this has further “expedited the growth of the cancer on our democracy” in terms of disaffection from the voting process. The problem now is the vote-buying cancer itself. Despite the campaign issues in St Mary South Eastern that were negative to the PNP, Shane Alexis got 94 votes less than what the late Dr Winston Green received in the 2016 General Election.

There was no swing to the JLP in St Mary South Eastern. What transpired was a 'cyst' or swelling of the voters' list by 808 votes and, if the allegations are correct, vote-buying — whether by voting JLP or would-be PNP voters not voting, or whatever form.

The presence of so many political garrisons is bad enough. For the first time in the history of Jamaica, senators replacing those who resigned to contest by-elections were sworn in before the actual election. This alone speaks volumes about political garrisons and the certainty of electoral victory.

This time around there was no wait-and-see if the former senators would win or lose and reappoint them to the Senate if necessary. In the past, when a senator resigned to contest even a 'sure seat' for the ex-senator, the replacements were sworn in after the by-elections were held.

With regard to vote-buying, if this cancer grows then our electoral process will become totally useless and might attract dictatorship.




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