EXACTLY 32 years after the 1980 general election — which remains etched as the most violent election campaign in Jamaica’s post-Independence history — there is consensus that the improvements to the country’s electoral machinery rank among the island’s greatest accomplishments since the 1980s.
During that bitter election campaign, well over 800 persons were murdered in the names the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP) which, at the time, were in a heated battle for control of Jamaica House.
The election was eventually won by the Edward Seaga-led JLP, which walked away with 51 seats, or 85 per cent of the votes.
The Michael Manley-led PNP secured nine seats, which amounted to 15 per cent of the votes.
That margin of victory remained the largest until 1993 when it was bettered by the PNP when it took home 52 seats to the JLP’s eight.
In a recent interview with the Jamaica Observer, former prime minister and JLP leader Edward Seaga described the 1980 election victory as the most memorable event of his political life. “Because it changed Jamaica’s history, and had it not been for that change I don’t know where we may have been in terms of the future of this country,” said Seaga, whose two terms as prime minister ended in 1989.
His comment reiterated the widely held view that the 1980 electoral victory prevented the PNP from further experimenting with Democratic Socialism — a political philosophy that drove fear into the hearts on many Jamaicans,3 particularly those from the middle class, who fled the island in droves.
For civil society activist Carole Narcisse, Jamaica has matured tremendously where the electoral process is concerned.
“Electorally we have come a very far way, our electoral process has been an area of transformation in our modern political history,” said Narcisse. “The systems and the penalties for improper practices have come a long way in the 32 years. However, we continue to reap the consequences of the political culture that gave rise to the garrisons, voter intimidation and the alliance between political parties and criminals.”
Narcisse also told the Observer that more work needs to be done on cutting the ties between political parties and henchmen from the criminal underworld. “Another legacy is the corruption of our procurement and contracting process. Too many henchmen evolve into businessmen, getting billions of dollars in government contracts,” she lamented.
Narcisse said that while some strides have been made in arresting major criminals linked to the two main political parties, the security forces and the Government have failed to capitalise on the opportunities to grant full freedom to many Jamaicans who are held prisoners in garrison communities.
“There has been more political rhetoric than political will and as a result we have been unable to grant people their full freedom granted under the constitution,” said Narcisse.
Meanwhile, Director of Elections Orette Fisher is asserting that significant changes have taken place since the 1980 campaign, and according to him, these changes have positioned Jamaica as a model in the management of national elections.
“From my observation, one of the most significant changes since the 1980 campaign is the move to having continuous voter registration and that, along with the use of fingerprints, have helped to address concerns regarding the accuracy of the voters list,” Fisher explained.
He added that the electorate as well as the leadership of the contesting political parties have matured, and this has helped in resolving many issues that have arisen during subsequent elections.
The Electoral Office of Jamaica boss also pointed to the introduction of several pieces of legislation as major accomplishments in the overall effort to improve the electoral process.
These include the decision to empower the Constituted Authority to void an election if it is deemed to be affected by violence, or other forms of irregularities.