Death and retrogression in Portland Eastern

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

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THE charges and counter-charges about political violence, including deaths, in the Portland Eastern by-election campaign, is threatening to upend the hard-won electoral peace of the last 17 years.

Of course, we expect the political parties to campaign hard, given what they hold to be the stakes in the contest — both the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) view the poll as a sort of referendum on their two leaders.

For the JLP, a win would represent a major upset and victory in a constituency which has been held by the PNP for the past 30 years and a bolstering of the relatively thin majority it has in Parliament.

A PNP loss would further cement the widely held view that its leader, Dr Peter Phillips, is not gaining traction with the Jamaican electorate and is on track to a general election beating when next they are called.

We in this space might be regarded as nave, but we continue to believe firmly that elections should be fair and free from fear and that voters are allowed to choose freely whom they wish to support, thereby giving full and true meaning to our democracy.

For that reason we are disheartened by the claims that party supporters are subject to violence; that there was no joint signing of the political code of conduct; and that in the ensuing atmosphere a debate could not be held.

All that means that we have retrogressed, at least in Portland Eastern, from the spectacular successes achieved through the hard work of the Electoral Advisory Committee, now Electoral Commission over almost two decades.

Jamaica's progress has caught the attention of the world which has watched us go from the vicious bloodletting of the 1970s, climaxing in the reported 800 political killings in the 1980 elections, to the civilised holding of elections with no related deaths.

Our electoral achievements have been held up as a model by other countries struggling to make their democracy wholesome. And we have been justly proud of the appearance of electoral peace.

Any retrogression would also have stained the effectiveness of the security forces and the Office of the Political Ombudsman, who would seem to have been unable to manage the campaign in a mere single constituency.

Portland Eastern might yet serve as wake-up call to all of us who might have grown complacent, thinking that the horrific electoral past is behind us for good. But we should have known better because democracy is a continuing work in progress.

It might also be saying that it is the nature of politics that whenever the stakes are high, politicians revert to their worst selves and throw caution to the wind. The loser in this, as always, is the country.

We implore the contestants in Portland to remember that our still fragile economy and tourism can hardly withstand any further bad press, whether local or international.

It is incumbent on Dr Phillips and Prime Minister Andrew Holness to do all in their power to ensure that their supporters are held in check and that by-election day on Thursday will be completely peaceful.

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