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On the trail...

We may well need some good ole-time humour to temper the campaign

LANCE NEITA

Sunday, January 12, 2020

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We are barely out of the 2020 gates and it's election race time with the two leading contenders shuffling their hands and hiding cards up their sleeves. Jamaica is used to elections, and this will be the 17th general election we have called since Independence, if such is called this year. As we know, the prime minister is the only person who can set a date, but everyone seems to be setting it for him. Journalists, news analysts, opinion writers, the Opposition, and even Cabinet ministers all seem to know the date. A first quarter here, a second quarter there, a pre-budget certainty, or, who knows, perhaps immediately after the budget debate.

Fortunately, the prime minister is accustomed to advisors — Lord knows he has scores of them — but in this instance he has gone clear of advisors; and, in racing terms, he is ahead of the pack. And he is keeping it close to his chest.

There is no fixed election date in effect in Jamaica, but general elections are constitutionally due every five years. This means that since the last election was on February 25, 2016, the next one is constitutionally due by February 24, 2021. Next year, not this year. However, an election can be called at any time during the five-year span, so it is possible that the election could be called this year.

Personally, I believe that prime ministers should do everything possible to stretch the period of government across the full five-year span. That was certainly the intent of the constitution, which assumed that a five-year term in office is a reasonable time for any Government to effectively perform its duties to the satisfaction or dissent of the people. Calling snap elections or playing around with election dates well within the five-year period to seek political advantage is the right of the prime minister. But, as politicians frequently do, they play the advantage rule to breaking point.

Interestingly, only seven governments out of 17 cycles have filled their five-year quota, give or take a month or two. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) kept the faith 1944-1949, 1949-1955 (less one month overdue), 1962-1967, 1967-1972, and 1983-1989 (two months over their quota). The People's National Party (PNP) stayed in office for the big five three times — 1972- 1976 (less two months under par), 1993-1997 (less than three months), and 2002-2007.

It is fair to say that all the early calls have been justified by circumstances. For example, Norman Manley called the 1962 General Election earlier than they were due following his loss to Alexander Bustamante and the JLP's referendum victory in 1961. The elder Manley also trumped the 1960 due date for elections by calling it early.

In February 1980, his son Michael Manley announced that he would be calling an early general election to seek support for his economic policies and a determination of what role, if any, aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) should play in the country's affairs. He stalled for almost the entire year before calling the elections on October 30. This was quite premature, as the due date would have been December 14, 1981. With the unusual length of time between February 1980 and the actual elections held on October 30 that same year, this could not be considered a snap election.

Generally, a snap election is called within a short space of time to decide a pressing national issue under circumstances when an election is not required by law or convention, and, more often than not, are designed to take the Opposition by surprise. Since the power to call snap elections usually lies with the incumbent, they often result in increased majorities for the party already in power provided they have been called at an advantageous time.

Mark you, snap elections can also backfire on the incumbent, resulting in a decreased majority or, in some cases, the Opposition winning and gaining power, as we see happened in 2007.

Strictly speaking, though, the only snap election called in Jamaica was by Prime Minister Edward Seaga. In 1983 the PNP called on Seaga to resign as minister of finance over a controversial claim that Jamaica had passed the IMF September quarterly test. There were charges and countercharges, allegations and denials on all sides, and Seaga's response was to call a snap election to be held on December 15, claiming he did so on the basis that the Opposition had called into question the integrity of his Administration. The PNP refused to participate in the polls on the grounds that the prime minister had broken his word not to hold elections until a new electoral list was ready. The elections went ahead and the JLP took all the seats. Advantage the incumbent. That one became known as the “Nicodemus election”.

The JLP again went for a short term election in 2007 when Prime Minister Andrew Holness called it one year before it was due. This time the governing party lost by a landslide. That one became known as the “Call it Andrew, call it” election.

Obviously, Holness will be giving serious consideration before calling another such short term election, and may well play out his five-year stint. In that case, a lot of people will end up with egg on their faces, while the PNP may probably go broke if it were to stretch its resources throughout 2020.

But, regardless, the trumpet is sounding and the bells are being polished, and it seems as if this new year will start off with the political 'road-runnings' busy again. Just as it did in 1980.

The old hymnals are being taken down off the shelf and the deification or demonisation — depending on how you look at it — of party candidates is about to start up in earnest.

I haven't been to a political campaign meeting for a long time, but in my days every good political meeting came with a sankey or a hymn considered appropriate to describing the party or the candidate's character. The emcee took his duties seriously and had to know when to introduce a particular song or verse. Ask Desmond McKenzie.

For example, in the old-time days it used to be set that a candidate was introduced with I must have the Saviour with me, as that was the clearest indication of the candidate's desire, virtue, and Christian principles. It was also a clear message that the opponent had no such moral standing. But the next night the opponent would hit back as the strains of I am thine, oh Lord could be heard coming from his/her platform.

In 1972, when the PNP recaptured power, the crowds waited in vain on Duke Street for the JLP Members of Parliament to make their traditional march from the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union headquarters for the opening of Parliament. The party boycotted the event, leaving the largely PNP crowd to chant happily, “Shearer in the garden hiding, hiding from Joshua.”

Joshua, of course, was the moniker accorded to Michael Manley, a title he had earned from his trade union days. The title Joshua came with a rod, which he carried to meetings, claiming that it was a gift from Haile Selassie I. When he paused during a speech and lifted the “rod of correction” to the crowd, there would be a mighty roar. So threatening was this act that Seaga, in one of those greatly amusing moments in our political history, managed to hide Michael's rod and come up with one of his own, which he claimed to be the right one, producing it at a Half-Way-Tree meeting one night. That did not swing as, a few days later, Joshua's cohorts made a successful raid on the JLP camp, recaptured the rod, and claimed victory.

Then there was that campaign in Manchester Southern years ago when one candidate, night after night, beleaguered his opponent for being an outright womaniser, and therefore definitely not having the Saviour with him. He got so carried away that he would warn his followers to be careful of so and so, because every night “if you look inna him car yuh see him with a different woman”.

So and so got his own back when, in retort, he mounted his platform and told his audience that the so and so was very correct about my amorous activities, “...but mi never know say him wife so chat chat”. Argument done!

In upper Clarendon there is the story of the PNP point man who barricaded the polling booth the morning of the election and wouldn't allow anyone to go inside and cast a vote. The PNP candidate rushed to the location and found an angry crowd demanding to be allowed to vote. He began to castigate the man, “Why yuh stopping the people from goin' inside the polling booth?”

“Lawd, Sah,” he replied, dem have one head inside deh, Sah, an it nuh look like you.”

Whether it's called in 2020 or 2021, we may well need some good old-time humour to temper the campaign.

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.


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