It has been cynically said that democracy is the best of the worst forms of government available to mankind. The current Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) leadership race, though an intra-party affair, brings once again into sharp focus the extent to which democracy is being practised and is embraced by the country's two leading political parties.
Both parties, over the years, have been at pains to convince the sceptics within and without their respective movements that democracy is alive and well. But is it? After all, in the final analysis, politics is all about sophistry (the use of fallacious arguments, especially to deceive), expedience (convenient and practical although possibly improper or immoral), Machiavellianism (cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, especially in politics) and manipulation. In this context, money can play a critical if not decisive role in determining who wins or who loses.
According to George Bernard Shaw (not related to JLP leader aspirant Audley Shaw), "Democracy is a form of government that substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few." And H L Menke has stated that: "Giving every man a vote has no more made men wise and free than Christianity has made them good."
Meanwhile, one cynic has opined that "democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!" And perhaps the most telling observation comes from Robert Hutchins who declared that: "The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment."
When former prime minister and JLP leader Bruce Golding deftly passed the baton to Andrew Holness, that was far from being an exercise in democracy. Yes, it was expedient because, at the time, the polls showed a great deal of favourability for Holness who was seen as young and fully equipped intellectually and otherwise to take up the reins of office. Mr Holness foolishly squandered that political capital by making two fatal mistakes. One was to call an early election, and secondly he, whether wittingly or unwittingly, decided to hold onto the sceptre of leadership without the approval of the JLP delegates.
Now that Audley Shaw has challenged his leadership, again there are those in Mr Holness's camp who are making the silly mistake of making it look as if his opponent is being treacherous. If the JLP is truly democratic, why then should any challenge to its leadership be seen as any act of betrayal? If this attitude should be taken to its vulgar extreme then it would be fair to say that it is democracy that is being betrayed.
But are delegates truly instruments of democracy at work? For many years there has been an ongoing debate in the PNP with respect to the extent to which delegates may be manipulated during an election process. It is argued that when a member of parliament pays en bloc for groups, then those delegates are expected to vote in one accord at the MP's behest. Hence there has been the concern about the emergence of "paper groups", which in essence are just that, skilfully established to give the MP leverage during any leadership race or contest for vice presidency or deputy leadership.
It is also well known that the party secretariat can manipulate the system in terms of lists presented for voting. Indeed, given the fact that our political parties are oftentimes seen as microcosms of the body politic, then it may be fair to say that whatever shenanigans go on in the general and local government elections (inter-party rivalry) are likely to play out in the intra-party plebiscites. One encouraging factor, therefore, has been the decision by both the JLP and PNP to use the services of the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ) in order to ensure transparency and probity. Ironically, Jamaica now has one of the most internationally respected electoral systems, but to what degree are our political parties remaining faithful to an unquestionable commitment to the democratic process?
While it is felt by pundits that overall the leadership races in the PNP have been free, fair and democratic, the chequered history of the JLP in this regard has suggested otherwise. One recalls the Pearnel Charles debacle and Mike Henry's thwarted attempt at the National Arena. The JLP, therefore, must be very careful this time round that it embraces all the tenets of democracy. It is not only money that can influence and manipulate the voting process, but intimidation, trickery and deception. So, while Audley Shaw is being seen by his detractors as "raw-chaw", His Holiness Prince Andrew would want us to believe that he is "a nice guy". Traditionally, there is the epithet that nice guys always finish last, and it must be understood that in the rough and tumble of politics a few vices may well come in handy. Just who is fooling whom? Indeed, some political observers have already come to the conclusion that both men are morphing into their respective personalities, so Shaw is becoming Andrew and Andrew is fast becoming Shaw. Brer Anancy, where art thou?
If Jamaica's fragile democracy is to be sustained then, as has been rightly observed by JLP Chairman Robert Montague, the JLP by itself cannot win. The growing trend of only diehards bothering to go to the polls, which suggests increased voter apathy, can lead to the ultimate death of democracy as we know it. A minority government that does not have an effective and aggressive Opposition is a sure recipe for rampant corruption, laziness and a lack of accountability. It is in this regard that Shaw's challenge may well be a blessing in disguise. Whichever way the cookies crumble, if the JLP respects the democratic process and coalesces around whoever wins, our democracy will be alive and well. A divided, rambunctious JLP with daggers drawn may well set the stage for a one-party state or a military coup, whichever comes first. In other words, only democracy can save Jamaica from itself. We need the yin and the yang. Ask the Chinese(lol)!
Lloyd B Smith is a member of parliament and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the People's National Party or the Government of Jamaica.