Politics, change and sameness


Thursday, February 21, 2019

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Today is the anniversary of the 1967 General Election — 52 years ago today. Of the 53 seats then available, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) won 33 seats. The following day, Donald Burns Sangster (knighted on his deathbed) became Jamaica's second prime minister in political independence. Born on October 26, 1911, Sir Donald was 55 years old when he was appointed prime minister.

After 48 days in office, Sangster died in Montreal, Canada, officially of a massive brain haemorrhage on April 11, 1967. Three hours later on the day of Sangster's death, Hugh Lawson Shearer was sworn in as prime minister, Jamaica's third in political independence. To date, Donald Sangster is the shortest-ever serving prime minister of Jamaica. Andrew Holness's tenure in 2011 was 74 days.

In his book Jamaica's forgotten prime minister: Donald Sangster, Hartley Neita wrote that Sir Alexander Bustamante wanted Hugh Shearer to succeed him, but initially Shearer declined the request. Bustamante remained leader of the JLP until 1974, when a specially made position of 'chief' was created for him. And while Sangster and later Shearer were prime ministers, they consulted Bustamante.

So Bustamante was really succeeded by Edward Seaga in the post of JLP leader. But in reality, Seaga did not take full control of the JLP until Bustamante died in 1977. Edward Seaga became prime minister in 1980 and served until 1989.

As Hartley Neita wrote of Sangster, who was previously acting prime minister for more than two years as Bustamante was ill, “He was in the position of the captain of an aircraft who was likely to have the controls wrenched out of his hands at any moment. Yet, he bore this paradoxical situation without complaint.”

The swearing in of Sangster as prime minister of Jamaica is the only one up to now done in secrecy. According to Neita, Bustamante's response to the JLP victory on election night was cold, and Sangster was deflated.

Two others wanted to succeed Bustamante, namely D C Tavares Jr and Robert Lightbourne. After Bustamante's cold response on the night of the general election, Sangster went home and wondered would Bustamante renew his request for Shearer to be prime minister, as Shearer won a seat in the House that same election day.

So Sangster asked then financial secretary, G Arthur Brown, to verify with then Chief Electoral Officer R C Roxborough that the JLP had won at least 27 seats — a majority of the then 53-seat House — and to inform the governor general.

When that was verified and reported to then governor general Sir Clifford Campbell, the swearing-in ceremony took place the following day in the presence of only the press secretary to the prime minister (Hartley Neita) and a photographer.

From reliable sources, even the previous JLP ministers of government learned about Sangster's swearing-in by radio and television news. After the ceremony, when it was a fait accompli, Bustamante was informed by the governor general that he was no longer prime minister.

The manner of succession in both major political parties changed when the People's National Party (PNP) elected Michael Manley as its president in 1969. True, Bruce Golding was sole nominee to succeed Edward Seaga as JLP leader in 2005. In 2011, Andrew Holness succeeded Bruce Golding after others withdrew interest. And Dr Peter Phillips, in 2017, was the only nominee to succeed Portia Simpson Miller in 2017.

How can anyone question the democracy in any of the three instances mentioned here? If there are no other nominations for a post being contested, the sole nominee is elected unopposed. But gone are the days when a JLP conference in 1960 was cancelled because the delegates elected a deputy leader not to Bustamante's liking.

The results of the 1967 General Election were protested by the PNP. Fewer people were registered for that general election than in the 1962 General Election, despite a growing population. And some of the constituencies were unfairly carved out.

Exactly 51 years ago, on February 21, 1968, a by-election in St Andrew South Western, when it was a solid JLP seat (in the pre-Portia Simpson Miller years) was called quickly following the death of its Member of Parliament, D C Tavares. Then a senator, P J Patterson protested that 11,000 adults were not on the list. The Government senators asked the Opposition if they wanted the people of St Andrew South Western to be unrepresented any longer. The PNP members walked out of the Senate.

But a year later, in 1969, the same JLP Government took six months to call a by-election in St Andrew East Central after the resignation of Norman Manley. The PNP protested, but a PNP Government 32 years later did not call a by-election in St James after the resignation of Francis Tulloch in 2001.

The local government elections of 1969 were called on a two-year-old voters' list. The general election of 1972 was called on a voters' list that was two and half years old, while the PNP protested. However, the PNP won the 1972 General Election.

But by the late 1970s, the JLP Opposition, led by Edward Seaga, complained that the 1976 voters' list was padded and pushed for electoral reform. Seaga pressed for electoral reform while the PNP Government, led by Michael Manley, was negotiating with the International Monetary Fund. International lending agencies are weary of lending money to governments that cannot be voted out because they tend to default on loans.

Yet in 1983, Seaga, as JLP leader and prime minister, called an election on a three-year-old voters' list, which was boycotted by the PNP. Nearly 10 years later, in 1993, Edward Seaga, in electoral defeat, blamed the director of elections that the voters' list was not prepared properly. In this respect there has been a definite sameness in our politics.

Michael Burke is a research consultant, historian and current affairs analyst. Send comments to the Observer or

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