With the opposition Jamaica Labour Party gaining 33 of the 63 parliamentary seats in the preliminary count of last Thursday’s general elections in Jamaica, the rejoicing of its supporters will have been substantially stifled as the recount of the vote took place.
The consequence of the vote is that with such a slight margin, a new government will be have to be extra cautious, and feel forced to impose extraordinary discipline on elected members in order to govern with a sense of certainty and stability. And indications of a potentially even more serious difficulty in this regard, were quickly emphasized by the JLP’s initial loss of one seat to the PNP during the recount, changing the tally at the point of our going to press from 34-30 to 32-31.
The more serious issue arising from the vote, however, has not been the actual result in terms of the division of seats between the parties, but rather the low voter turnout, with only 47% of the electorate choosing to cast a vote.
This might appear to suggest not only a loss of enthusiasm for the PNP government’s performance over the last five years, but also a similar lack of enthusiasm for, or belief in, a realization of what was proposed by the JLP during the campaign. The JLP leader Andrew Holness, however, will certainly have been claiming that his party’s proposal for a revamping of the income tax system will have turned victory to his side on the part of an electorate looking for a change from the PNP’s heavily IMF-influenced economic strategy.
The tenseness of the country during the recount was palpable, as indicated in the Jamaica Defence Force’s initiative to call out all reserves, an initiative felt to be even more necessary as, during the early stages of the recount, the JLP lost one of the seats announced in its favour to the PNP. And the potential difficulties of managing the government, while holding the support of the population, have been indicated by former JLP leader and Prime Minister Bruce Golding’s statement that the country now seemed to be going into “uncharted waters”.
Nonetheless, the JLP will claim that that in spite of the difference in the vote count between the two parties of just over 4000, it can justly claim that a probably weary electorate has decided to try what has been a traditionally stable alternative, and an alternative which did not hesitate to announce unanticipated economic strategies, as against a PNP then led by a sitting Prime Minister unwilling to publicly debate the soundness of her ongoing economic strategies for the new five-year period.
The results of the election parallel, in some measure, those of Trinidad & Tobago last year when what seemed to be a governing party, led by an apparently uncertain Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, was defeated by a reorganized People’s National Movement led by Dr Keith Rowley with 23 out of 41 seats. And it would appear that the Jamaican electorate would seem to have been uncertain as to whether the PNP leader had any strategies, beside the ongoing IMF ones, for creating a decisive revival of the economy. Though, in introducing his new measures to the population, Holding claimed that they were not incompatible with an IMF strategy, while being designed to replace what were seen as oppressive policies not indicating relief in the foreseeable future.
Holness seemed, in addition, to indicate that his taxation strategy, brought to the public on the brink of the election date, had the support of the private sector, a statement that was not decisively denied by the grouping. And in terms of his timing, Holness seemed to give the PNP leader, widely deemed to be incapable of untutored immediate response, little room for resistance to accepting the challenge in the face of an electorate willing to see the contours of a post-IMF agenda.
What, however, is now clear, is that the taxation proposals of the new government will probably have to go through a dual process. The first is a review, in terms of their compatibility with the strategy and timing of the economic recovery process signed and sealed with the IMF; and the second will be the new Prime Minister’s ability to hold the support of his parliamentary group, given the slight margin between the two parties.
This, no doubt, will be important for the IMF advisers, concerned to ensure that after this prolonged period of tutelage of the former Jamaican leadership into staying the course of implementation of the accepted economic strategy, the new leadership will have understood the importance of acting likewise, including pursuing the task of persuading the electorate that the strategy is perceived by the IMF as, at this point, outside the boundaries of domestic political contestation and competition.
From the perspective of the Region, there has often been the assumption that the PNP has been more supportive of regional integration than the JLP. In addition, it will probably be understood that from the perspective of the IMF, the task of economic recuperation is not as yet complete, and that this will sometimes have to take priority over other regional concerns.
In a sense, this is likely to be understood in the rest of the Region, given the perception, in the Eastern Caribbean in particular, of the extent to which what can be called the leading east-southern Caricom economy bar Trinidad & Tobago, that is to say Barbados, has had to undertake severe policies of economic restraint, and is therefore likely to have been fully understanding of the travails undergone by Jamaica under IMF tutelage.
It is sometimes thought to be traditionally the case that the interest of Jamaica in regional economic integration has never been as intense as that of the other Caricom states. The PNP has, on the whole, seemed to indicate a wider commitment to the movement, although the leadership of the JLP would want to suggest that the PNP was simply more vocal in support. But there is also a perhaps not inaccurate perception of Jamaican foreign policy, in recent times, as being more supported by the two main parties than in earlier years. Bruce Golding, as JLP Prime Minister, seemed to portray this posture, and we shall see whether it is followed.
But other countries of Caricom will no doubt, in this period, understand that the meaning of regionalism is changing, with Jamaica taking a wider interest in the northern sphere, in relation to its neighbours Cuba and the Dominican Republic in particular. And no doubt there is a growing understanding too, that broader conceptions of the Region and versions of regional economic integration, within the wider hemisphere arena, are becoming the order of the day.
Whether Jamaican foreign policy, under the new political order, sustains this direction, is left to be seen. But in the last resort, it appears, a focus on the country’s economic recuperation will be, for a Jamaica Labour Party which dramatised the election with its last-minute economic taxation proposals, the main immediate order of the day.