“A vote is a very important thing.”

Early afternoon on December 29, 2011 Grandpa was ready to go and vote.  He’s voted in every election for which he’s been available and eligible so Jamaica’s 16th general election was no different.  As we prepared to take him – me, younger sister, mother – he said the above: A vote is a very important thing.  Then I hadn’t decided to blog about this day but I’ve had some time to think, distance myself from much of the hullabaloo so here are my thoughts…

Mrs. Simpson-Miller and Mr. Holness

In the weeks leading up to December 29 – even before then-PM Holness made the announcement – I had many discussions about which party was the best choice.  Initially I thought that the elections would be close and could go either way but as the time drew nearer there was a niggle in the back of my head.  I kept hearing about the G2K-funded and produced advertisements that were hard-hitting against then-Opposition leader Simpson-Miller.  Folks seemed to find them funny…but were the effective? It seemed that the G2K was hitting only Mrs. Simpson-Miller and hard too.  I finally saw the ads.  The papers one made me chuckle, I must admit, but the one where bits and pieces of her speeches were stiched together to create an image that she is only a raging virago seemed to go a bit too far.  But folks have (and still have) their issues with Mrs. Simpson-Miller as their leader so maybe it’d work…?  Still, the ads planted a seed of concern for me about the the JLP’s chances.  Then there were the gaffes on the campaign trail by Mr. Holness (whether gay Jamaicans should serve in Parliament, the correct exchange rates in 2007, etc…), the issue with Holness’ children being home-schooled, JDIP, and the oblivion of Minister Nelson about the US spy plane (linked to the Tivoli Massacre) that the JLP finally remembered.  Too much backtracking and covering their ass, and their stunningly poor management revealed a deep arrogance, brazenness, and cluelessness.  Whatever euphoria and poll blip they’d seen after Mr. Holness’ ascension election were whittled away.  And that whole youth thing?  Stopped gaining traction.  Then again I’d said that a government led by Mr. Holness would not get my vote for one simple reason: anyone who could ban Beka Lamb – or reasonably rely on advice to do so – could  not be my leader. Nope.  

That's a whole lotta orange...

So the elections came and went.  The PNP won in a landslide – 42 – 21 seats in the House of Parliament.  By 10 PM on December 29 it was clear that the PNP, led by Mrs. Simpson-Miller, would form the next Government of Jamaica. She finally had her own mandate.  The JLP was trounced.  I believe that this week is the first I’ve heard or seen of them in the local Jamaican news.  In the aftermath it became apparent that the JLP was just simply too arrogant and not cognizant of how the average Jamaican was coping, struggling in 2011 going on 2012. Meanwhile the PNP showed itself to be masters of groundwork and grassroots mobilization.  Lots has been written to dissect this loss – my favourites are by Annie Paul and Jean Lowrie-Chin.  I’m not interested in concluding with my own dissection.

Instead, I have 5 observations about the recent elections, all of which trouble me:

Old style politics is infecting the younger generation.

Young Jamaicans are rabid.  I’ve already seen too much of the hubris and rub-it-in-your-face-my-side-won-and-yours-lost smugness.  And by young I mean younger than I am all the way up to mid-30s.  It sickens me…it’s not the ordinary Schadenfreude at all.  Too much retribution.  Too much callousness.  I worry that the engagement that many laud, including myself, is being hijacked by the same political tribalism that’s infected the country for almost 50 years.  It would seem that either young people become rabid or…

Voter turnout is a huge problem — too many disaffected, apathetic, people.

What are the figures? Scarcely 50% of the voting population showed up to vote? And this is one of the most peaceful general elections ever.  So what kept so many people away? Under any circumstances that kind of turnout is dismal.  If only half of the population enumerated and then only half of them voted, then 25% of the country is speaking.  That cannot be a good thing.  No, it is not a good thing.  True many felt as if they were stuck between a rock and hard place and instead chose not to vote…but I urge you not to do that again.  Yes, I respect your CHOICE not to vote but I hope that you realize that this does far more harm than good.  You’ve lost your leverage to hold this government and its opposition accountable.  Additionally, you’ve lost your leverage to make either or both parties change to address the needs you – and likely many others – see as critical to Jamaica’s future.  Both parties now know that they really need only appeal to their base – who will always show up either because of deep loyalty or greased palms – and say a healthy fuck you to you in the process.  They now know that they don’t need you.  Do you now know it too? I saw many young people on TV programs before and after the elections talk about sending a message to both parties that you’re pissed off.  What message exactly? And for older people who did not vote: shame, you should know better.  You have really accomplished nothing.  Have you even salved your own conscience?  Neither of these parties has any need to address your legitimate concerns (lack of good leadership, lack of concrete plan to address the economy, crime, education, all of that).  The vote, the thing that gives you tremendous power over the people that you employ, has been squandered.  Why? If each party can continue to gain incrementally among the voting population – i.e. just enough to enjoy power – without feeling the true power of the full voting population then the harm done to Jamaica’s political foundation is even greater than I can imagine.  Even worse, the PNP almost got a super majority in Parliament.  No party should ever have that much power.  Take it from someone who was made to stand silent on election day for so long: you must exercise your right to vote.  No good can come of being silent.  So yes, I respect your choice but I cannot accept it as the right one…

Of course we could also have a discussion about my premise…

Need to allow a vote for MP separately from a vote for country leader

This is related to the the issues highlighted above.  I think that the root of the apathy among young and some middle-aged and old Jamaicans is that often you don’t like who’s been chosen as leader of the party.  Yes Jamaica has a Westminster-style democracy but it is the worst kind of system to be used in Jamaica.  It is too easily hijacked and manipulated.  In Jamaica leaders are too insulated from accountability.  Put the choice of the country’s leader in the people’s hands without demanding that they sign up for a political party.  Separate the ballot.  Perhaps this will also force us to confront the deliberate undereducation and miseducation of most of the Jamaican population.  And I don’t mean the problems with English Language and Math classes or graduation rates…

MPs must live in their constituencies.

Yes, this argument.  I’ve heard every argument against this, from “it won’t work and the system works fine now” to “do you want some constituent to come knocking on your window at all hours.”  Well the system does not work fine and no, I don’t want someone knocking on my window at all hours which is why I am not involved in representational politics.  Because you do represent the people in this little political unit.  Every time I see a “safe seat” – they’re not all represented by big name politicians and they’re not all garrisons – the place looks like hell.  Poor roads and other infrastructure are usually the first thing I notice, followed by a number of unemployed people. Sure the MP will have to work with local government officials to address these officials but I’d be willing to bet that if an MP had to live there, things could not and would not be that bad.  Further, Jamaica may also lessen this practice of foisting a person upon a community to be its representative.  Go live there.  Work in the community.  Understand your constituents’ needs.  Understand what must be changed.  Get to know the people you work for.  An MP shouldn’t do this from this great distance or primarily through proxies.  I suppose that they’ll have a staff to manage things but making your home in a place, I think, necessarily means that you won’t accept certain conditions.  Do you really think Mrs. Simpson-Miller would live in her constituency? She’s come from “humble beginnings” but she surely didn’t remain there…why should her constituents live in in those kinds of beginnings? Poor is one thing, squalor is another…

Should MPs be cabinet ministers?

Here lies the case of Christopher Tufton.  Many of “us” thought him a good and effective minister of Agriculture and a viable candidate for leader of the JLP.  Then he lost his seat on December 29.  It was close but he still lost.  The people of his constituency in St. Elizabeth rejected him.  Why? I imagine (mostly) because they found him a poor representative for them, or an ineffective Member of Parliament, or they preferred his opponent Hugo Buchannan.  Is it that his duties as Minister eclipsed his life and he simply had insufficient time to be an effective Member of Parliament?   I think that there’s a good chance that this was the case, and it seems a shame.  So, does this need to be changed too?

________

I’ve been asked a few times if I was in Jamaica to vote.  I was not.  I’d booked my ticket even before Mr. Golding stepped aside.  Moreover, I could not vote: I was not enumerated.  I’ve been away from Jamaica for so long that I can no longer be tied to a constituency.  The last time I could have been enumerated was in 2003 when I was home doing a semester at The UWI.  A local government election was being held in my constituency and I was excited to vote.  I’d left Jamaica at 16 and now was old enough and in the country and interested and excited…but I missed the deadline for enumeration and even though there were a few weeks before the elections would be held, I could not enumerate.  To say that I was angry is an understatement.  In a way I was an electoral refugee: unable to vote in the U.S. because I was not yet a citizen but hampered by my own country by rules ostensibly meant to prevent fraud that in reality disenfranchised so many.  Imagine turning 18 before an election but after this deadline…and you’re in limbo until the list opens up again.  Right.  But that’s the law so there it is…

Anyway, it was now 2011: I could have flown down to enumerate and then again to vote.  This is the way that many Jamaicans who live abroad to it.  But I don’t consider that fair…I no longer make my home inJamaica.  Instead, I am a member of a Diaspora estimated to be at least as large as the population of the The Rock.  Though progress is like molasses, I’d prefer that the people who live in Jamaica develop and implement a policy that incorporates my vote.  I am very vocal about Jamaica politics and policy, and I think that I and others like me have a place in those areas. But the plain fact is that I don’t live in Jamaica and, until things change, a vote ought to be cast by those who are directly represented through that voting process – Jamaicans who live in Jamaica.  So, no I didn’t go to Jamaica this Christmas to vote…nor did I bandooloo it and vote.

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13 Responses to ““A vote is a very important thing.””
  1. Sean Spence says:

    Amen re: Westminster. I cannot fathom how any country, much less Jamaica, could continue to argue that this system makes sense. When you tie the vote for your MP to the vote for your Head of State, obviously it is the latter that has more weight, especially when that is the media’s focus. Consequently, people don’t stop to think “who is actually the best person to represent my constituency?” So, of course, the eventual MP can get away with neglect because he/she has no pressure to act: as long as you’re in the “right party” at the right time, the job is yours! Forget about always having to prove yourself…

    As for the apathy, I’m less certain, and think both sides have equal weight. While I agree with what you’ve said, there’s just a part of me that fundamentally thinks it’s wrong for someone to have to vote when the two options presented go against that person’s beliefs (correct me if this is not what you are saying). I’m probably being too idealistic, but I much prefer the image of someone going to the polls because they’re going to vote for someone they truly believe in, not for “the person who will screw up less,” or as is the Westminster case, for Andrew vs. Portia, not Tufton v. Buchannan. Voter apathy may not send a message to the person who regardless came into power, but it is still very telling, and cannot always be solved by simply getting people to the polls. People have to want to go to the polls. AndI think there’s something far more complicated at work, and that it has to do with the relationship between MP and constituency, the Westminster system in general, and the trend in Jamaican politics (among others).

    What I am 100% against is the notion that by not voting a person has somehow lost their right to criticize their government. The right to criticize your government, “freedom of speech” if you will, comes before the right to vote, and remains there after. You are no less Jamaican simply because you didn’t want Portia over Andrew, or Andrew over Portia. Continue criticizing your government, no matter your enumeration status, because that is what also holds the government accountable.

    • Here’s the thing, Sean: while I agree that one should ideally go to the polls because they truly believe in why they’re voting and who they’re voting for, this is not the reality. The reality is that, in Jamaica at least, many think there is Evil #1 and Evil #2. The Morton’s Fork. The dilemma. We don’t yet have a system where we have that kind of system or candidate such that voters walk into the vote even half shiny eyed with hope. So, walking away from making that choice doesn’t prevent either of the evils from getting into power…I wouldn’t mind if the no vote stance was a viable thing, that it could shake the Jamaican political establishment sufficiently for something to be done. Alas, that’s not the case. Instead, the non-voters have simply cut themselves out of the system even if they can and should still criticize their government using the right of free speech. And they’re still stuck with one of the Evils. You haven’t lost your right to speak out, of course not. But you have lost the full effectiveness of that right. If the object of the criticism knows that all you’re going to do is to criticize but not strike at the source of their power by voting, then what incentive does that entity have to accept or even listen to your critique? What incentive to change? What incentive to court you? Even if that vocal critique is listened to and internalized by others who vote, the power structure is still not feeling the full wrath or strength of the electorate. Unless it is the ends is to get the voting public down to 0%, which is what I think Betty-Ann Blaine et al would like…but I don’t believe to be possible. Believe it or not but I actually have a hard time accepting this idea of a less than “effective” citizen simply because one does not vote — because I do think that elections and voting are but the beginning of things because elections alone do not a democracy make — BUT I can’t help but grudgingly accept that voting and vigorously critiquing your government are so closely intertwined that to do one without the other makes you nearly impotent. Arggh!!

  2. uncle d says:

    whats beka lamb

    • “Beka Lamb” is a book by Belizean Zee Edgell. It’s set in Belize, around the time the debate about independence from England was ongoing, and is a coming of age story about a young girl called Beka Lamb. The story is told through her eyes and touches on many issues including politics (mostly about whether to seek independence from England or not), education, religion, telling a country’s history, justice, teenage pregnancy & adolescent sex, and the Caribbean family. There’s also a bit about indigenous populations.

  3. Annie Paul says:

    thanks for reminding me about Beka Lamb…really ridiculous this preoccupation with so-called bad words….its a farce

  4. Dettie Blake says:

    WOW!! Between you and Sean Spence, almost all my points had been exhausted. But I will reiterate that we are expected to vote for “the lesser of the two evils” and as I have been saying for some time now “No better herring, no better barrel”.

    I will declare that I did not vote on Dec 29 2011, and I will continue to proclaim this until I have reason to be ashamed. I am not just going to vote because I have the right to. I prefer to vote for plans and proposals, not inactivity and laziness.

    If there was a way to vote for my Prime Minister and [not vote] for my Member of Parliament separately I would most certainly ink up my finger for that. I refuse to merely vote just to out an ‘X’ beside a head or a bell. How do I decide who to vote for if neither seems to be eligible candidates, or representatives for the people? How do I decide who to vote for if neither presented any plans for the development of the constituency? Flip a coin?

    I refuse to vote just for voting sake. I made a joke with my co-workers on election day that I was going to go behind the curtain and ‘spoil the ballot paper’. Nobody would know, as my ballot would be folded and placed in the box, and there would be ink on my finger. Would that then make me eligible to ‘talk out’ against the government?

    Sometimes we are forced to make conscience decisions, and my conscience would not allow me to vote for either of the candidates.

    As for the point about MPs living in my constituencies, while in theory it would seem like a viable solution, in practice, it is not [always] that easy. Case in point: my MP. He lives and works in the constituency. The road he drives on from home to work is HORRIBLE. The roads leading to his practice is deplorable, and getting worse. The very roads in the housing scheme in which he resides is inneed of fixing. So while I would see where having the MP in the constituency might be of benefit to the constituents, I also see where it could just be of no help, because when some one doesn’t care, they just don’t care.

    I agree wholeheartedly that cabinet ministers and MPs should not be one of the same. It SHOULD make it easier for MPs to perform in their constituencies. BUT is Jamaica [economically] ready for that? It would require paying two set of people.

    On a side note: What say you about the persons who vote on memory (aka voting for Michael Manley or Bustamente)?

    That’s my two cents 🙂

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Dettie.

      I take your valid points about voting with your conscience, so to speak, instead of just going through the motions. Perhaps part of my difficulty with this is that I know that my conscience would kill me. But I’ve set that aside and, yet, am still troubled by the vacuum that not voting creates. I’m troubled by the effect on the entire system and what real change the (non)action can or will bring to the political system. What exactly does the non-vote accomplish aside from satisfying your conscience? Your concerns are so valid but is this the best or most appropriate way to get them addressed? As for spoiling your ballot: that’s effectively not voting so same problem & effect for me. Only difference is that you could have paraded the finger & be smug…? I guess.

      Voting along tribal lines or because of a memory is related to the first problem I highlighted: the infection of the political system with these hard line, noxious affiliations. I despise the practice in Jamaica as I despise it in the US political system. Sure we have our ideological leanings, that’s inevitable almost, but to vote on that alone without considering other factors, I think, short changes the country & your fellow citizens. Because that’s part of what voting is isn’t it — taking stock of not just your situation but that of your country and countrymen and making a choice that somehow balances it all. Which brings me back to your ‘conscience vote’…admirable but the best choice?

      As for your MP: what a travesty. Of course this points to a flaw in my suggestion that I can’t immediately get around yet don’t feel automatically nullifies the suggestion. Why was he reelected then? Also, I feel compelled to ask though — what kind of vehicle does he drive? And what’s been said to him, that you know of, about the state of the roads?

      • Dettie Blake says:

        To answer your last set of questions first: He was reelected based on memory. There are a lot of die-hearted persons in the constituency. People voted for Michael Manley because he provided housing for them back in the day. Sad but true. It is a PNP stronghold and JLP doesn’t even try.

        Mr MP drives a SUV. Which one it is this month? I don’t know. Persons have wrote him letters, visited him at work, visited his constituency office, demonstrated by blocking roads…. end result? A little marl that washes away within a week.

        My conscience decision might not be the best decision for everyone, but it is what I am comfortable with. I could never live with myself if I voted for either of the candidates, and quite frankly my conscience is what I have to deal with everyday. However, yes, I agree. My non-voting help to make 25% of the country dictate the running of the country. That’s shameful and sad. But is it really an indictment on me or on the politicians? Isn’t that a show to them how turned off from [all of] them people now are? So much so that they don’t see it worth it to vote? So my non-voting should not just be thought of in a vacuum, but inside it should show the politicians that the public is getting turned off from their ‘old style of politics’.

        Just a little ‘for your information’…. In 2007 little over 19 650 persons exercised their right to vote in my constituency… in 2011 just under 14 450.

        I was thinking too, that each constituency needs to start asking for more from their political representatives. I, for one, admired the interest of the Central Manchester constituents in hosting a debate from their candidates to hear their plans on for the constituency… addressing their issues. I think it is something to be adopted by more constituencies.

      • Interesting re the vehicle…as I suspected & worse. Do you know how many persons were registered to vote in 2007 & 2011? Also, I’m pretty angry that your MP has been so deaf to the concerns of his constituents. Now that he’s back in office & with a cabinet post (fair disclosure: I’ve spoken to Dettie about this offline so I know of which non-performing MP she speaks) have you considered doing an online campaign/effort to address the areas needs? Maybe a lil’ shame will work *smiles sweetly* Just a thought…and yes an encouragement that “even you” hold him accountable….

        Good point re: Central Manchester. It does seem like a good method that other constituencies could – and should – adopt.

        Finally, not saying that your not voting should be thought of in a vacuum but that it CREATES a vacuum. I understand that you did what you’re comfortable with, you know, and I respect that you’ve made a difficult choice under unenviable circumstances. I just don’t agree with it. As for whether it should be an indictment on you or the politicians…I’d change it a bit to say the categories are: politicians, civil society, and the political system and then respond, albeit tentatively, that it’s an indictment on all 3 groups because ALL voters share in this blame. Because, at some point, those who vote should start demanding that the representatives that they elect act to address the glaring lack of participation by eligible & interested citizens.

  5. Stanny says:

    “So much things to say right now – they(I)’ve got so much things to say” – Bob Marley. Much of what you have said in this post is timely and relevant. When I look at how many countries last year rebelled in the Arab Spring and how many citizens still cannot exercise their right to choose a government, it saddens me that we in Jamaica are refusing to get enumerated and those of us who do have chosen not to vote.

    You have taken a stance on an issue which the average Jamaican dare I say would scoff at as foolishness. On a random corner I can almost hear “Dat a nuh nutten. ‘Beka Lamb’ is just a book. Look how much book out deh. If di man want ban di book fi likkle bad wud, wa wrong wid dat? How yu fi decide say yu nah vote fi di man because a dat?” I remember “Beka Lamb” quite well. It was one of my favourite books in 3rd form. I don’t remember it for the so-called “bad words” though. I remember it for the teenage pregnancy. That stood out in my mind more than anything else. I believe even more so because there was a rumour of a classmate being pregnant at the time we were studying the book. Anyway, you have taken that stance and it must be respected even if not agreed with. I myself disagree with the banning of the book but I chose not to vote for a different reason.

    When I was a teenager, I had the misfortune of witnessing a Member of Parliament open his car trunk and issue weapons to a group of men. Yes. Witness. An MP. Guns. Young men. Nobody told me about this. I happened to stop to talk to an older dude in the group. Unbeknownst to me, they were waiting for his return at that pre-arranged spot. This never left my mind. Years later when I spoke to my friend (who by then had become a changed man) he explained to me that the MP was only doing what his counterpart had done the previous weeks. No shots were fired in that constituency (to the best of my knowledge). It was sort of like the Cold War in the constituency but both the PNP & JLP issued weapons. With bullets. To kill Jamaicans and drive fear into the “other side” and intimidate voters.

    Those of us with even cursory knowledge of Jamaican political history are aware that the general election of 1980 was deemed to be the most violent in our country’s history and many historians and observers attribute the high murder rate at the time to the violence associated with the elections. (More than 800 murders were attributed to political violence). I was not yet 10 years old in 1980 but I was very sharp and aware of the tension that existed. In those days, I would spend time in Kingston and in two rural parishes. The tension was high everywhere.

    I say all of this to say had our forefathers known that this was what the process would boil down to, they would not have fought for Adult Suffrage. They would have fought for accountability, equity and fairness, transparency in the process, rooting out corruption et al. I doubt if they knew the process would come to this. So when people say “your forefathers went through hell to get you the right to vote” – I disagree. The hell that people are going through with poor governance from both the PNP and JLP; high levels of corruption, mismanagement, raping public funds – this hell is worse because of the lasting effect it has on a nation grappling with poverty. My answer to those people? It doesn’t matter who you choose. If you do not attempt to elevate yourself by your own means, no politician can help you. If they do, you are obligated to them for life.

    I am proud to say I have never voted in a Jamaican election and I never will. Yes, proud. Thankfully, the process seems to have improved over the last 30 years since 1980. Gun issuance may not be taking place anymore. The dynamics have changed. The man dem a buy dem own gun from them own illicit activities. The political killings are fewer and far between but the memory of that man opening his car trunk and issuing weapons is forever etched in my mind. I cannot put an ‘x’ beside any symbol just like how you couldn’t put an ‘x’ beside the symbol that represents the former PM’s party because of his stance on Beka Lamb.

    One day I may change my mind? Maybe but it won’t be any time soon. Neither of Jamaica’s two political parties are fit to run the country. I refuse to vote because I can. Whether I vote or not makes no difference either. To wring clichés dry: Rock & a hard place. Devil & the deep blue sea. I cannot offer an alternative – sadly. All I can do is hope & pray for the citizens of my beloved country. The struggle for my suffrage is not over.

    • This is a lot to take in but, as with Dettie’s explanation, I can find no fault with your choice though I still disagree. Not much else I can or will add to what I’ve already said. Perhaps, though, with your explanation I am a bit more biased, though, because a family member of mine is experiencing a similar disenchantment with the Jamaican political system. S/he used to vote and work on election day…mixed it up with gunmen to protect the ballot box and to protect people’s right to vote. Only to learn later that behind the scene bogus voting occurred in her name and in other family member’s name, but out of a crude kind of respect they were “allowed” to mark their ballots anyway. Now s/he scoffs at the idea of voting because of disdain for a system that has been manipulated so (too?) much and is corrupt…that does not, s/he fears, truly represent the people of the country. So I can understand why after witnessing the distribution of guns you’d say to hell with this! BUT, the process has improved. There is still much to be done, up to and especially including getting folks like you and Dettie to vote and feel confident about the vote that you cast. I hope that one day you will change your mind. Until then I will continue to encourage folks to exercise this right. Sometimes I intentionally hold on to some naivete because being too cynical would weigh on me too much…but the truth is I see voting as an important part of one’s citizenship and I have a grand idea of what that citizenship means and should be (or at least try to be). But that’s something for me to think about more and maybe share at another time.

      I do agree though that we each have to take responsibility for ourselves and our own successes by elevating ourselves. I don’t mean to suggest that voting and being involved in the political system means absolute reliance on politicians to solve problems. Not at all. In fact it’s this reliance on “some other person” to do things for us that has helped to get us to where we are…

      So much things to say indeed…thanks for commenting, Stanny 🙂

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