Developing our nation: Preserving our democracy

Developing our nation: Preserving our democracy

Dr Canute Thompson

Sunday, October 11, 2020

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It is over a month since the last general election. So much has happened since, with little seeming public attention. But who would be surprised given that 63 per cent of our people show no interest in the business of elections?

What are some of the things that have happened since the last election?

(1) As at Thursday, October 8, 2020 there were 132 COVID-19-related deaths. There new cases pushed the tally to 7,363 since the pandemic hit Jamaica in March.

(2) The economy had declined by almost 20 per cent in the last quarter (18.4 per cent).

(3) Some 50 per cent of households have reported that hunger is a major challenge, according to a Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI) study.

(4) The People's National Party's (PNP) presidential race is on.

(5) No word had been heard from either the Government or the candidates for the presidency of the PNP about how they are going the address the major socio-economic challenges crushing many Jamaicans.

Neither the PNP presidential aspirants nor the Government is to be forgiven for not publicising their plans to rescue the Jamaican society and economy. In the case of the aspirants, they would have known for some time that running was on their mind. And, in the case of the Government, it is its duty and obligation to provide leadership and direction. Thus, in the case of the candidates, it is a shortcoming on their part. In the case of the Government, it is malpractice and dereliction of duty of the highest order.

Citizens' loss of interest

With both major political parties failing to excite the interest of citizens, the urgency of the need for those who vie for leadership, and those who hold leadership, to articulate a compelling vision could not be greater.

The Jamaica Observer carried a story recently which indicated that over 1,500 The University of the West Indies (UWI) students have had to drop out this year due to not having Internet connectivity, tablet/laptop computers, or some other impediment why they cannot access classes.

The number of primary and secondary school students who will have difficulty accessing classes is over 250 times the 1,500 university students reported by the Observer, at about 400,000 according to the Ministry of Education. This fact highlights the urgent need for a developmental drive in the provision of bandwidth and computers, which is far more urgent that the national identification system (NIDS), for example. The Government's priorities need overhauling.

I mentioned the CaPRI study which showed levels of hunger and the nearly 20 per cent shrinkage of the economy. In the face of those realities, visionary, alert, and focused leadership is required.

Mark Golding and Lisa Hanna have an opportunity to display this kind of leadership. The Government has failed to do so, almost a month after receiving a massive mandate. But rather than moving swiftly to cauterise the bleeding economy its first move has been to install mechanisms to reduce oversight. That alone tells us all we need to know.

It is conduct of this kind — failure to articulate vision, fixity of purpose in relation to the wrong things, misplaced priorities, and actions that weaken the structures of governance — which has, over the years, turned off so many Jamaicans from the political process. It is simply not true that COVID-19 is responsible for the low voter turnout last month, and teaching civics in school will not address the problem. Changing the structures of accountability and developing policies, which relate to people's real concerns, will. To dispute the lie we would like to believe that COVID-19 was responsible for the 37 per cent turnout last month I show the pattern of decline since 1980. See table included.

What the data show is that the turnout in 2020 was less than half that of 1980, and despite two years of marginal increases (1997 and 2007) there has been a clear pattern of decline. But even more telling is the fact that 2020 was not the worse year of decline — 1993 compared to 1989 was.

I submit that what we are seeing in the pattern of decline in voter turnout is a loud statement from citizens that they are turned off from politics. When one considers data showing a highly popular prime minister, massive spending on various projects and programmes and other things (legitimate and questionable), the steep decline in participation reflects a national crisis of trust.

Implications for development

The level of public disengagement from the political process presents major problems for our development as a nation. In Part 3 of my latest book, Education and Development: Policy Imperatives for Jamaica and the Caribbean, I examine the issue of “Leadership and Institutional Development”, and in Chapter 7 explore the issue of public trust and the implications of low levels of participation in the political process.

When citizens do not trust their leaders, leaders will become increasing unable to influence and motivate citizens and thus citizens' compliance with norms, rules, and laws will have to be forced or coerced. This will lead to increased levels of friction between citizens and arms of the State, not just law enforcement.

Evidence of this mistrust has been witnessed with the refusal by some to wear masks and compliance with curfew orders; and the thinking that, “If election could keep, parties can.” Long before COVID-19, however, we have seen lack of compliance with general public orders. The long-term implications of the flouting of rules and laws include more funds being spent on enforcement and less on advancement, which could be simply expressed as more money spent on policing and less on schooling.

At the centre of the narrative of citizens' cynicism and mistrust is the issue of public corruption. Polling data during the period 2016 to 2020 suggested that the population was largely unmoved by corruption. But how can this be a valid argument when corruption was identified as a reason for citizens' lack of participation in prior elections?

But Jamaica's experience in declining citizens' participation in the political process is not unique, even if somewhat extreme. In Barbados, for example, voter turnout averaged 76.74 per cent between 1966 and 1986, while the average between 1991 and 2018 was 61.32 per cent. Patterns of decline in Trinidad and Tobago and Antigua and Barbuda have also been observed, but nothing near Jamaica's.

The 2019 Global Corruption Barometer report highlights the need for stronger political integrity, especially around elections, and reducing bribery as being among the key actions that must be taken to tackle the problem of citizens' mistrust of the political process and their consequential refusal to engage.

Massive vote-buying is alleged to have occurred on September 3. Some have pushed back on this allegation arguing that it is nothing new and that both parties are involved. This defence is precisely the problem because it seeks to justify and normalise the problem. My retort to the “It's nothing new” defence is that, if we doubt that vote-buying and other corrupt election practices are of no consequence, just look to the 63 per cent.

Paths to voluntary compliance

If Jamaica is to reverse the trend of declining participation in the political process, as well as in other facets of public life, then there must be systemic changes. Among these changes must be the elimination of opportunities for public officials to remove funds from the public treasury to set aside for personal or political gain and advantage.

Let's revisit the issue of vote-buying, as an example, which some say has been with us for a long time. Is vote-buying advancing the political process or undermining it? If because everyone has done it we decide to normalise it do we not run the risk of making the electoral process one in which the buyer who is willing and able to pay the highest price is the winner and the middle class, who are not prepared to sell, the inevitable abstainers?

If we do not wish either situation to be the state of our democracy, does it not stand to reason that we eliminate the source of the problem by preventing buying and selling? If we are successful in eliminating the buying and selling of votes, what is left for those who once benefited from this craft? Nothing! So, to what do they turn, especially the vulnerable and manipulatable sellers? This is where a first-rate education system which empowers and enables graduates at all levels — primary to tertiary — to become creators, innovators, and entrepreneurs. When their lives and livelihoods depend on it these innovators and entrepreneurs will not scorn the political process.

Thus, my vision for how we reverse the decline in participation in the political process is a new paradigm which makes an educated and empowered population the objective of public policy and political representation.

The realisation of the vision of making an educated and empowered population the objective of public policy and political representation requires leadership from those who are in positions to assume leadership. This includes the near-dormant civil society groups, the Church, the private sector, professional associations, the media, and academia.

One of the biggest impediments to people in these organisations becoming involved in the political process is the retributive and either/or nature of our political culture. Our society needs to mature to the place at which trenchant fact-based criticisms are respected, even if not 'hugged up', and those making them not seen as 'bad mind' or anti-Government.

Contrary to popular perception, one can be a good journalist and a supporter of the political party of one's choice, in the same way an academic or preacher can present cold, hard, relevant facts and analyse them dispassionately, even though having a preferred political party.

The Government has the duty to lead the way in promoting an environment which welcomes diverse perspectives, as well as fulfilling its word of not tolerating corruption. Both are needed to increase citizens' participation. Thus, while Prime Minister Andrew Holness has put his Cabinet on notice, he must be aware that the country — including the 63 per cent — has placed him on notice. The results we desire require consistent actions, not mere lofty words.

Dr Canute Thompson is chair of the People's National Party's Policy Commission, as well as a senior lecturer in educational policy, planning, and leadership at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of six books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or

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