As we celebrate 184 years of Emancipation and 60 years of Independence, Jamaica also celebrates 359 years of democracy.
It was the ancient Greeks who were the first to create a democracy. The word democracy comes from two Greek words: demos, which means people, and kratos, which means rule. However, the Greek idea of democracy and citizens are different from our present-day understanding.
In Athens, all adult citizens were required to take an active part in the government. Most importantly, the Athenian definition of citizens meant: only free men. Women, children, and slaves were not considered citizens and therefore could not vote.
Jamaica was established as a British colony when it was captured from Spanish occupation in 1655. Its first House of Assembly held its first meeting on January 20, 1664 at St Jago de la Vega (now Spanish Town).
The first general election was held in December 1663, that is, eight years after Jamaica became a British colony. The 1663 elections positioned Jamaica as one of the first locations in the New World to hold elections. At that time the voters' list comprised about 300 white men, 21 years or older, who possessed freehold property worth not less than £10 or paid a specified amount of taxes, in a population of about 6,000 whites.
Over the centuries, by 1830, free mulattoes and free black men and male Roman Catholics were granted the franchise to vote, and by 1831 male Jews. After full Emancipation in 1838, former enslaved male Africans meeting the voting requirements of property ownership were allowed to vote.
The Paul Bogle-led Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 caused the demise of the Jamaica Assembly and the imposition of Crown Colony Government in 1870. Under Crown rule — the beginning of the modernisation of the electoral process — modelling of that which was occurring in the United Kingdom took place. This included the election of black people to serve both in the legislature and parish councils. By 1919 women in Jamaica gained the right to vote, but that right was subject to property and income requirements.
For 256 years (1663-1919) the definition of a citizen evolved. It is very important for us to recognise this evolution as the document 'History of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica' published by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica erred when it described the 1663 beginning of elections in Jamaica as "not synonymous with democracy". Our modern notion of democracy developed through the leadership of Norman W Manley, resulting in the country being granted full adult suffrage on November 20, 1944. The new system extended voting rights to adults irrespective of their race, sex, or social class.
For the colony of Jamaica, this achievement actually pointed to its high rank among the nations of the world, and as Errol Miller pointed out, "When universal adult suffrage was implemented in Jamaica in the general elections of 1944, Jamaica became the third State in the British Empire to conduct elections on this basis, preceded only by New Zealand and the United Kingdom, the mother country of the empire." (The Gleaner, January 5, 2015) For Manley, universal adult suffrage was the first nail to be driven into the coffin of colonialism as a political system.
Political scientist John Keane suggests that a new form of democracy is evolving in which the Government is constantly monitored in its exercise of power by a vast array of public and private agencies, commissions, and regulatory mechanisms. As we now move towards becoming a republic, our 60 years of constitutional democracy shows that with our propensity for abuse of citizens by agents of the State and the presence of unbridled corruption practices, there is great need to be also a monitory democracy.
Dudley C McLean II