Throwing in the towel before the polls

Friday, March 09, 2018

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Traditionally, voter turnout at by-elections is low, and the number dwindles even more when either of the island's two major political parties accepts defeat long before constituents cast their votes.

That appears to have been the case with Monday's by-election in St Andrew North Western that resulted in Dr Nigel Clarke, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) candidate, defeating Miss Keisha Hayle of the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) by more than 1,600 votes. Essentially, the PNP gave up on the seat, as evidenced by the party's muted campaign leading up to the vote. As did the JLP last October in the by-election for St Andrew South Western, a strong PNP seat, which saw Mrs Angela Brown Burke garnering 6,325 votes to the JLP's Mr Victor Hyde's 223 votes.

Political pundits will argue that it makes no sense expending energy and resources on a constituency that you firmly believe you cannot win. However, history is replete with instances of so-called underdogs creating upsets, mostly because they refused to accept the notion of defeat without trying.

When political parties give up before the election, they are basically telling people in that constituency that their votes are of no consequence. That, we hold, is not healthy for democracy. In fact, it can lead to complacency, as well as the type of arrogance that we have seen among some of our politicians over many years as they gradually form the view that they are the voters' masters.

The voter turnout of 23.6 per cent in St Andrew North Western on Monday is a clear indication that the problem of political apathy in this country is mushrooming, as the data show that in the February 2016 General Election the voter turnout in that constituency was 40.33 per cent.

We accept that there are other factors that contributed to the low voter participation in St Andrew North Western on Monday, such as the migration of homeowners who, though registered in that constituency, live elsewhere. However, that does not detract from the fact that this country is facing a serious dilemma, as the national figures are dismal.

With the exception of the 2007 General Election when there was a marginal increase, voter turnout in parliamentary elections have been decreasing since 1993 and hit its lowest percentage ever post-Independence — 47.72 per cent — in the 2016 polls. That is, of course, outside of the 1983 snap election which saw voter participation of 28.94 per cent because the PNP decided to boycott the poll in protest against then Prime Minister Edward Seaga reneging on a promise to not call an election without an updated voters' list.

Coming from the 1980 election, which saw voter turnout of 86.1 per cent, the highest ever since Independence, what now obtains is painful and, indeed, worrying as the representatives in our legislature are there based on a minority vote.

The country should not allow this to continue. The manner in which we practise our politics has to be improved in order to instil a sense of trust and respect among the populace.

Both the JLP and the PNP need to ensure that the candidates they are putting forward are people of unquestioned integrity. And in cases where any of those candidates are found to be in breach of the law, they should not be shielded by the parties, or any other entity, as has happened on too many occasions in the past.

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