BY CONRAD HAMILTON Sunday Observer senior reporter email@example.com
AS Jamaicans celebrate the country's 50th year of Independence, the man who has been its longest-serving prime minister has acknowledged that the actions of our political leaders, particularly in the 1970s and '80s, fostered the spread of political tribalism and violence that almost wiped the country off the map.
Many Jamaicans, including some noted political scientists, have argued that 'pork barrel' politics played a major role in fomenting the political violence that ravaged the country and led to the murders of thousands of Jamaicans in the names of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People's National Party (PNP), both of which were at the forefront of the bloody campaigns to form the Government.
Addressing a special sitting of the Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange last week, former Prime Minister PJ Patterson, who was a powerful member of the PNP during the much chronicled period of tribal violence, said Jamaicans have paid dearly.
"That Jamaica has paid an immense price for it, I don't think anyone could question [that], and I am not going to engage at this time in the blame game, I just want to state the facts," said Patterson who was president of the PNP and prime minister between 1992 and 2006.
In assessing the impact of tribal politics on Jamaica since Independence, he argued that political violence emerged in the early 1960s.
"In 1962 there began to emerge a new pattern within our political system and Norman Manley warned about it. To use his words exactly, 'an alien force had entered our political culture and, over time, that spread'," said Patterson, as he outlined how the country's political parties promoted political discord.
"Action tends to promote counteraction, and very often it doesn't matter who lands the first blow, or which was the most devastating blow, but you are engaged in political turmoil. Added to that, it was a time when there was an assertion of the right of people to better conditions of living and better standards of life. Many people saw political choice as the determinant of their chances of success, or progress. It was made the worse by the building of communities where people were located according to political preference, and that is what was responsible for what we now note as the garrison communities," Patterson said, commenting on the link between tribal politics and crime.
"The period in which political violence was most intense has cost the country a great deal, and we must, in the next few years, continue on the road we have started to ensure that people's lives, people's futures, are not dependent on political allegiance, but there is some method which is open, transparent and equitable," he cautioned.
He asserted that it was impossible to sustain political tribalism.
"The truth is, political discrimination and victimisation are self-defeating, as no Government can ever provide everything that it needs for all its supporters. And, conversly, if there is somebody who doesn't support the Government who feels that he or she has no chance of getting anything to which they are entitled based on merit or on need, then they only have one course, and that is to remove the Government," he added.
Patterson said he is satisfied that significant strides have been made in the bid to end tribal politics in Jamaica and pointed to the establishment of institutions such as the Electoral Commission of Jamaica and the Office of the Political Ombudsman.
He is, however, concerned about how party politics has influenced the decline in voter turn-out in recent general elections.
"The drop in turn-out in the last election, though some of it might be due to the particular time of year -- we have never had an election between Christmas and New Year -- but even making allowance for that, I think it's a wake-up call. And one of the worst things that could happen is that people get so cynical, so turned off from the political process that they fail to exercise their right of democratic choice, and in this regard I think not only the political directorate, but the media have a very important role to play," said Patterson.