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In 60 years of Universal Adult Suffrage... Jamaica has bloomed into a vibrant democracy

BY OLIVIA LEIGH CAMPBELL Observer staff reporter

Tuesday, November 23, 2004    

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November 20, 2004 marked the 60th anniversary of the introduction of Universal Adult Suffrage in Jamaica, a system that extended voting rights to all adults irrespective of race, sex, or social class.

It was to set the foundation for our political system today, and in, a sense, catalysed the movement toward self-government for Jamaica.

The process was led by Norman Manley, and Alexander Bustamante would later become the island's first prime minister. Before Universal Adult Suffrage, implemented in 1944, the right to vote was determined by the amount of wealth or property a man held.

That requirement prevented the majority of people from standing for election to become what was then called a Member of the Legislative Council (MLC), or from even voting for a representative. The Legislative Council then was made up of one MLC per parish, with the upper house or the Executive Council being appointed by the Governor.

The introduction of suffrage precipitated other changes in the electoral system, the first being the re-drawing of constituencies based on the number of voters, rather than along parish lines.

At first, each parish was afforded two representatives, with Kingston, St Andrew and St Catherine having three each, as those parishes had higher populations.

Now, 60 years after being granted the suffrage, historians and political analysts say that far from having squandered the privilege, Jamaica can boast significant progress and improvements to its electoral system and a robust democracy.

According to constitutional attorney Lloyd Barnett, Jamaicans should be proud of the progress the country has made, especially regarding the process of elections.

"We are where we should be," he asserts.

"Essentially, the system of registration and the voting system have been improved over the years and, under the direction of the Electoral Advisory Committee, are now non-partisan and efficiently administered, as the CAFFE reports have indicated in the past two elections."

Still, says Barnett, there is room for improvement.

"There are matters that have arisen over the years, matters relating to garrison constituencies, violence in some areas, and problems similar to other countries where there probably is not enough attention being paid to the issues at election time, but the basic system itself works."

Professor Errol Miller, EAC chairman, and the man now in the forefront of building a modern electoral system, also believes Jamaica is one of the better examples of democratic governance. "It stands up well when you look around the world," says Miller.

"We have kept on being a democracy, and we have kept faith with that vision of our forefathers. And what is to the great credit of the country is that when some of the things that we inherited showed that they would lead us astray, our leaders have had the vision and the foresight - and the courage - to step back."

For example, explains Miller, the system of elections inherited by the independent Jamaica was a winner-take-all system, whereby the government alone had control.

Government alone had the power to set constituency boundaries, and, in fact, call and run elections unilaterally.

The introduction of the EAC in 1979, a body made up of government, opposition and independent members, corrected much of that, and has in fact led to an electoral system hailed the world over as one that is credible.

The process of electoral reform since then, says Miller, has resulted in Jamaica evolving a system of its own, which, though not completely unique, is tailored to our own needs and experience.

"There are not many places in the world that there is consultation and agreement between the opposition and the government with respect to members who act as arbitrators and whose judgments are accepted as a means of settling the issue."

But while the process of ironing out the kinks in the system has worked well so far, political analyst Troy Caine points to what might be the final hurdle for Jamaica to accomplish as a flourishing democracy.

"Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the process now has been caused by us," says Caine. "We have taken it up on ourselves, perhaps unconsciously, to entrench only two parties."

He points to the fact that since 1944, there have been no less than 40 third parties formed to contest elections, plus a number independent candidates, but that neither grouping has won an election since 1949.

"What we have done, relatively unconsciously, is entrench the two parties that have become so powerful and have dominated the system, thus retarding the growth of any other party," Caine adds.

He believes however that overcoming the two-party system is possible over time.

Miller, though accepting that there is no perfect system, is optimistic that if Jamaica continues along its current course, will eventually have a system that is a beacon for others around the world.

The next steps in the process - the introduction of three more constituency seats to keep the number an odd one and the creation of an entrenched Electoral Commission to replace the EAC are on the way.

And soon, the EAC - will be shooting for a 90 per cent target registration of eligible voters, and to have as many turn out to vote.

So while the date November 20 has passed virtually unnoticed by the majority - and quite unlike the morning of November 20, 1944 when there were celebrations and church services to mark the occasion - the absence of major celebrations among the people has not been seen or interpreted as a lack of appreciation for this very important right.

In time, hopes Miller, as more people find their own voice in the political landscape, participation in the system will increase and Jamaica's democracy will be strengthened.

"Jamaican people just need to be challenged and provided the means by which they can participate," said Miller. "I've found that they do rise to the occasion."

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