Peter Espeut | No end to political corruption in sight
I believe I understand fully why opinion polls of the Jamaican people do not show political corruption to be a factor in determining voting behaviour. Counter-intuitively, this is because corruption is rife in Jamaican politics. If I believe political corruption to be the cancer destroying the life chances of the Jamaican nation-state, and I want to vote against corruption, then I have no choice: because both our major political parties are profoundly corrupt.
I would have to choose not to vote. Not because I do not care about Jamaica, but because I do care – deeply.
I believe that very many Jamaicans find themselves with this choice to make; and very many have chosen not to vote. At each successive general election, fewer and fewer turn out to vote. It is the declining number of die-hards (the expression ‘die-hearted’ is not without meaning) which determines the winner in Jamaican elections. In 2016, out of 1,824,412 voters on the rolls, only 882,389 cast a vote – a voter turnout of only 48.4 per cent; the JLP won 436,972 or only 24.0 per cent of the electorate.
I predict that the voter turnout in the upcoming general election will be even lower. Many Jamaicans had confidence that Andrew Holness, our first prime minister born after political independence, would have been new and different, and would have taken a strong stand against political corruption, but they have been disappointed. The corruption scandals have continued.
The truth is that Jamaica’s political system is corrupt by design, and corrupts even well-meaning new politicians. Jamaica’s corrupt political system also attracts corrupt people who fully intend to benefit from it.
It is possible to design a transparent system that would easily expose corrupt behaviour, but then that would defeat the purpose of politics. Like elsewhere in the world, Jamaican politicians should declare their assets publicly for all to see. Locally, people know who owns what, and should politicians fail to declare particular houses and lands, it would come out.
Jamaica’s politicians have passed laws which ensure that the declarations are made to a secret committee which cannot publicise their contents; failure to declare assets attracts no penalty, and the declarations undergo only cursory scrutiny. Both parties support this non-transparent Trumpian behaviour. Andrew Holness has taken no steps to increase transparency.
A major fact is that Jamaica’s electoral system is not self-financing; it needs injections of large amounts of cash to print T-shirts, caps and wristbands, to buy food and drink, and to rent buses and supporters to attend political meetings. This is where the private sector comes in, making cash donations and expecting favours in return.
The link between political donations, on the one hand, and contracts, waivers, and permits on the other (influence-peddling, bribery, graft), would be more detectable if the law required all political donations to be made public. Currently, only donations greater than J$250,000 need to be declared, which provides a huge loophole, since larger donations can be split between different sections of the same party. Donations can also be made to third parties (and thus are kept off the books) who spend on the politicians’ behalf.
Reporting on donations is only required “one hundred and eighty days after the day of an election”. This prevents voters from knowing before the election who is giving what to which party, which may help them to decide how to vote. In other jurisdictions, donations are posted on an open website as they come in.
It is easy to see that this system designed by the politicians will allow much influence-peddling, bribery, and graft to go undetected.
It is unlikely that political corruption will come to an end in Jamaica any time soon; whichever party is in power will see to that. Even if a third political party emerges which commits itself to ending corruption, they are unlikely to ever be elected because they will not get the political donations they need from the corrupt private sector which expects favours in return.
Corruption is going to be a big part of Jamaica’s political system for the foreseeable future.
Peter Espeut is an environmentalist and development scientist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org