Editorial | Local gov’t revival
Prime Minister Andrew Holness promised in August that Jamaica’s municipal elections won’t be postponed for a third time, beyond next February.
“The Government intends to fulfil the constitutional requirements and the Constitution as it relates to the local government elections,” PM Holness said at a press conference in August. “…If something happens – an exogenous shock, weather events, then certainly that has to be considered, but as it is now, it is the intention of the Government to fulfil its constitutional duties.”
Voting for the island’s 13 parish-demarcated municipal councils and its single city municipality, which is to happen every four years, last took place in November 2016. The polls were postponed twice because of concerns over COVID-19, although the country voted in a national election in September 2020, at the height of the pandemic.
In the face of Mr Holness’ declaration, it is not surprising that the island’s main political parties are in election mode and that his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) has been busy introducing candidates across the island and making a case for why it remains the best choice for voters at the local and national levels.
Neither was it unexpected that elections – the impending vote and the possibility of Mr Holness bundling it with a national election – were on the minds of the officials and delegates of the opposition People’s National Party (PNP) at their annual conference last weekend.
Several speakers goaded Mr Holness to call the poll and warmed to the PNP’s electioneering slogan of “Time come” for turfing out the Jamaica Labour Party, which has been in office at the national level just shy of eight years, and nearly as long in the majority of the parish governments.
However Mr Holness decides to proceed with the vote, the parties have an obligation to make these elections count – using them as the starting point for rebuilding confidence in Jamaica’s democracy and people’s engagement with the political process.
First, holding elections is an expensive exercise. The Electoral Office of Jamaica recently confirmed that it has asked the Government for J$1.7 billion to conduct the local government poll. That is 70 per cent more than what it requested in 2021, when it expected that the election would have been held 19 months ago. The budget could even be higher if the local and national elections are bundled.
But costs are far from being anywhere near the biggest problem facing elections in Jamaica. The deeper crisis, as the PNP’s former president, Dr Peter Phillips, pointed out at the public session of the party’s conference on Sunday, is that Jamaicans are losing faith in the institutions of democracy, including politicians.
No one questions the veracity of Jamaica’s elections. It is widely accepted that they are free and fair, and that the outcomes represent the will of the people who cast ballots. However, too few people believe that there is a real reason to vote.
Indeed, in the last local government elections, a mere 30 per cent of the registered electorate voted. At the 2020 national election, where voting is generally significantly higher than municipal ones, the turnout was a historic low of 37.85 per cent.
These numbers, in part, highlight the crisis of which Dr Phillips spoke. Nearly half of the population does not trust them, and upwards of 70 per cent say they live in a corrupt country. Over 50 per cent would tolerate a military coup if it were in aid of removing corruption. Figures like these represent real dangers for Jamaica’s democratic process, from which citizens are opting out.
QUALITY DEBATE AND CIVILITY
It is against that backdrop that Dr Phillips, even as he argued that the PNP was best suited to lead a “revival of our democracy”, warned his party that “a tribalist political stance won’t do it”. There was, he added, “no place for political gimmickry”.
This newspaper agrees with Dr Phillips and hopes that the current leadership of the PNP not only heard, but fully embraced his exhortation. Indeed, it is a message that we also commend to the JLP.
Put another way, while the imminent polls are, or are expected to be, primarily about local issues, the contests should also be driven by a quality debate and civility that has not been associated with local government elections for a very long time. Or, for that matter, national campaigns.
The point is, ideas and policies should also matter in the municipalities and in the election for their councils, which represent the first but a critical rung in the governance system. Even with the constraints on their authority from the central government, there is significant room under the Local Governance Act for ambitious municipal leaders, especially if they invite non-political participation in their council activities (including, as allowed, membership of some committees), to achieve transformative things in their parishes and communities.
The real constraint, usually, is that municipal councillors consider themselves, or are made to be, subordinate to, or messengers for, the members of parliament of the party they represent.
Transformation, in the circumstance, requires that they extricate themselves from this limiting mindset. Which begins with the quality of the candidates chosen by the parties.
The JLP and the PNP say they have “strong” candidates for these polls. Strong enough, this newspaper hopes, to help in the revival of Jamaica’s democracy.