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The bloody general election that changed Jamaica

1980 was one of the wickedest elections, says Dr Winston Davidson

BY HG HELPS Editor-at-Large helpsh@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, October 30, 2012    

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Today marks the 32nd anniversary of the 1980 general election that was marked by over 800 murders in a bitter fight influenced by ideology.

THE political violence that haunted the 1980 general election has evaporated, but matters centred on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) continue to dog the nation on the 32nd anniversary of the infamous national vote that changed Jamaica.

The general election, held October 30, 1980, ended in victory for the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) which thumped the People’s National Party (PNP) by 51 seats to nine, a record margin of victory by any party up to the time.

Unlike 1980, the general election campaign last December ended with little political confrontation and death associated with it — the conclusion drawn by political analysts is that Jamaica has matured.

The 1980 poll, though, saw 844 people murdered, by police official statistics, a figure that political analysts believe — due to the limitations and challenges in recording criminal activities at the time — was higher.

Almost 35 per cent of those killed were slaughtered in the constituency of West Central St Andrew, which had the JLP’s Ferdinand Yap and the PNP’s Carl ‘Russian’ Thompson as candidates.

Prime Minister Michael Manley, who came to power on February 29, 1972, leading the PNP to a 37-16 seat victory over the JLP, and followed that with another triumph over the Edward Seagaled JLP (47 to 13 seats) in the December 1976 general election, gambled by calling an early election on October 5 at a mass meeting in Sam Sharpe Square, Montego Bay, St James. He had over a year left in his second term.

Police estimated the crowd at 150,000, which Manley used as an unscientific ruler to measure his party’s strength.

Manley’s famous statement “150,000 strong can’t be wrong”, proved a nightmare for the PNP and went against the scientific prediction of respected pollster Carl Stone, now deceased, that the JLP would win a minimum 40 of the 60-seat House of Representatives.

The charismatic Manley’s only scientific fillip was a hastily done poll led by a team that included University of the West Indies academics Dr Derek Gordon and Dr Paul Robertson, which predicted a massive PNP win.

But the hardships that emanated from a borrowing agreement with the IMF in 1978 were becoming unbearable for the masses of the country and the PNP was beginning to feel the heat.

“Because of the state of the economy emerging from agreement with the IMF, Manley would walk out of the IMF and we were able to ride through and win the election,” veteran JLP politician Pearnel Charles told the Jamaica Observer yesterday.

Charles, who was imprisoned during the controversial 1976 State of Emergency, also used his experience in detention to send a message that Jamaicans should have nothing more to do with the PNP.

“I was in detention from 1976 to 1977, and when I came out I was hitting the road and telling of the problems we had with the Government forcing the 1976 election as a result of tactics.

“I was going to run in the strongest JLP seat in 1976 (St Andrew South West) and they took it and gave it to Portia (Simpson). At the time, over 8,300 JLP people left the constituency. I was one of the regular platform speakers and the message that we sent was that we would never want another Government to lock up the Opposition and win,” Charles said.

Manley decided in February that election would be called the same year. He vowed that there would be no voting until the new voters list was completed, a process that took eight months.

But the economy was under pressure. The IMF conditionalities were burning up the proletariat, the middle class and the unemployed.

Manley’s decision to sever ties with the IMF in March 1980 led to further hardships, including a struggle to pay public servants; 11,000 of whom, he said, would have to be chopped from the State payroll in order to shore up the $50-million budget for fiscal year 1980-81.

This led to a strike by over 300 workers of the Government-run Jamaica Public Service Company, that virtually plunged 70 per cent of Jamaica into darkness.

Blood started to flow swifter than the river Nile, as tension rose between JLP and PNP factions.

The Eventide Home fire, in which 153 old women were burnt to a crisp, occurred May 21. Police said that the building for the old and indigent was torched by men from the South St Andrew constituency.

An incident known as the ‘Gold Street Massacre’ resulted in five men being killed in the JLP enclave of Gold Street, Southside in Central Kingston in April, the same month in which the Hannah Town Police Station was attacked by gunmen, with one policeman and a civilian dying in the incident.

As the political administration of the day became increasingly jumpy about opposition to its policies, the Jamaica Defence Force detained 24 soldiers and three civilians for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Government. All 27 were later freed.

Several persons were killed on National Heroes Day, mere days before the election, and there was further bloodshed in the St Elizabeth South East community of Top Hill when JLP and PNP supporters clashed.

The Denham Town Police Station also came in for fierce attacks from gunmen.

“There were several confrontations in the street involving JLP people like Karl Samuda, Winston Spaulding, Douglas Vaz and others,” Charles said.

“But we were determined that the PNP should not go back and we continued to convince the people.

“There was one confrontation up Hope Road with Dudley Thompson and DK Duncan on the PNP side… we were deadlocked in the street — the JLP would not move and the PNP would not move.

“We had to negotiate terms and conditions right there in the street and it ended with nobody getting hurt… they turned back and we turned back,” said Charles, who went on to contest the St Thomas East seat and blew away newcomer Winston Jones by over 5,000 votes.

The seat was won by the PNP in 1976 when Violet ‘Vie’ Thompson upset JLP stalwart Linden Newland by a mere 310 votes.

The confrontations were in all constituencies. JLP deputy leader and former Prime Minister Hugh Shearer’s motorcade came under attack in Falmouth; Manley’s team was attacked in Spanish Town… and there were countless others.

The leftist Workers Party of Jamaica (WPJ), led by Dr Trevor Munroe, had been quietly supporting the PNP, which ushered in more rumours of a Communist takeover — a claim Manley consistently denied, even though his friendship with Socialist Cuba strengthened.

Later, some WPJ members were arrested in Hanover for possessing what the police claimed to be bombs.

Dr Winston Davidson, who contested his only general election that year, and vowed never to do so again after what happened during the campaign, described it as “the most awful period of Jamaica’s history”.

The medical practitioner, who lost to the JLP’s Dr Mavis Gilmour in St Andrew West Rural, insists that he was marked for death.

“I had a meeting planned for Essex Hall and something came up and I did not go, but my driver went. When the vehicle got to a point, gunmen shot it up on the side that I would have been sitting. Luckily, the driver managed to get away safely,” said Dr Davidson, who polled 7,211 votes to Dr Gilmour’s 11,961.

“A whole set of polling stations in my constituency were not opened. The people lined up at polling stations from before six o’clock and still did not get to vote.

“It was one of the wickedest elections — not only did they not open some polling stations, but [ballot] boxes were tampered with and even in areas where people did not vote, there was a full count in the boxes.

“From that I said I would never run again in another election and I have stuck to that, even after Michael Manley asked me to run again in 1989.

“A lot of people died — soldiers killed a lot of them, they ransacked my house saying they were looking for weapons, they threw away my campaign material in a gully and Herb Rose, my campaign manager, was locked up.

“It was an election in which the East/West tension played out in all forms,” Dr Davidson said yesterday.

That East/West tension was in reference to Manley and the PNP’s embrace of Cuba and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on the one hand, and the right of centre JLP, which was closer to the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Manley's decision not to boycott the Moscow Olympic Games in the summer of 1980 also did not sit well with the USA.

His Democratic Socialism political philosophy, declared in 1974, was also not clearly defined, although it appeared to be closest in political systems of the Janos Kadar-led Hungary with its Democratic Centralism — a system that had a mix of State ownership of the means of production, distribution, exchange and, among others, the co-operative system, as well as limited Capitalism.

The JLP, on the other hand, waved a Social Democrat flag for the electorate to see.

The PNP lost currency when three of the party’s big names — David Coore, a former deputy prime minister; former finance minister Eric Bell; and one of the brilliant minds, Vivian Blake, who Manley defeated for the leadership of the PNP on February 9, 1969, left the party.

The utterances of Cuban Ambassador Ulises Estrada did not help Manley’s cause either, with candidate for Clarendon North West and former education minister Edwin Allen, among others, calling for him to be declared persona non grata. Seaga duly obliged days after the election and chopped ties with Cuba a year later.

Hurricane Allen destroyed sections of the island’s infrastructure, including a telling blow on the banana industry, leaving behind damage estimated at $155.5 million.

Coupled with hoarding of goods by business operators determined to see the backs of Manley and the PNP, the setbacks of the banana industry added to a shortage of food, which miraculously was aplenty again a day after the election.

Tough-talking PNP candidate of St Andrew East Rural Roy McGann and his policeman bodyguard, Acting Corporal Errol White, were killed by policemen in Gordon Town Square a day before nominations opened.

McGann’s replacement, Lloyd ‘Perry’ Stultz, was soundly beaten by Joan Gordon (later married Webley), who in recent years became executive director of the National Solid Waste Management Authority.

The JLP, with its popular slogan, ‘Deliverance is Near’, swept the election. Seaga’s promise of making money “jingle in yu pockets” was now eagerly anticipated, even as DK Duncan lashed the electoral system as flawed.

Duncan pointed the finger at chairman of the Electoral Advisory Committee, Professor Gladstone Mills and Director of Elections Carl Dundas, whom he said failed to clamp down on electoral malpractices. Dundas emigrated to the USA mere days after.

Duncan, a dental surgeon, also blamed the police and army for the roles they played in booting the PNP from office.

In the end, the JLP not only swept the polls, but scored 58.9 per cent or 502,115 of the 86.9 per cent voter turnout.

The PNP, for its sweat and tears, mustered 350,064 voters, or 41.1 per cent of the 860,746 votes cast.

The PNP had taken a severe beating. Some of the big names were cut down, some of them temporarily. The list included:

PJ Patterson, Howard Cooke, John Junor, Clive Dobson, Dr Aston King, Desmond Leaky, Arnold Bertram, Sydney Pagon, Derrick Rochester, Winston Jones, Jack Stephenson, OD Ramtallie, Ruddy Lawson, Jim Thompson, and Derrick Heaven.

It was time for the Boston, United States-born Seaga, a Harvard graduate in anthropology, to take charge as Jamaica’s fifth prime minister and the healing process begun in earnest.

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