MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica—Car horns blared, orange flags waved, and campaign reggae jingles pulsated. Youthful political celebrants blew vuvuzelas from roving car caravans on the evening of Dec. 29, continuing well past sunrise across this Caribbean island nation.
A snap election called by the governing Jamaica Labour Party catapulted the opposition People's National Party into government after a five-year hiatus. In terms of seats in the House of Representatives, it was a landslide, 41-22 for the PNP. In terms of votes, it was a three per cent shift from the very close 2007 results. This time the PNP won 53 per cent, the JLP 47 per cent. Political pundits were equally surprised by the relatively large margin of victory, and by the record low 52 per cent turnout.
Still reeling from the effects of the global economic crisis, the vast majority of Jamaicans are deeply troubled by the skyrocketing cost of living, chronic unemployment, and especially dismal prospects for young people, school graduates included. In this election, deep cynicism competed with a desperate hunger for change.
Now don't mind the political labels. The JLP is not a labour party, not even vaguely pro-labour. It is a right-wing business party. And the PNP, notwithstanding its formal affiliation to the Socialist International, long ago abandoned its social democratic pretensions in favour of catering to the whims of foreign capital. The difference between the parties is more superficial than substantial, more akin to what distinguishes Canadian Liberals from Conservatives, or American Democrats from Republicans. In policy terms, precious little; in fundamental social class terms, zip.
Still the “comrades” of the PNP, led by Jamaica's first female Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, raised the expectations of workers, women, and youths. Promises to refrain from slashing public-sector jobs, and to invest in national economic development, set the PNP apart from the JLP.
The “Labourites,” under new leader Andrew Holness, bragged about a decline in the crime rate and, after three years of shrinkage, marginal growth in the GNP under their tutelage. Both parties pledged to slash the country's odious debt (over $18 billion U.S., equalling 130 per cent of GDP) and to abide by International Monetary Fund loan conditions—which means exactly what it means in Greece, only worse.
Business groups rushed to express their “confidence” that the PNP government-elect will do what big business deems necessary. Congratulations poured forth from the President of the Jamaica Exporters' Association, Vitus Evans; from the Jamaica Manufacturers' Association, Brian Pengelley; and from the President of the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, Milton Samuda. Samuda praised Simpson Miller's “strength of character” and anticipated working “with the government, especially on the growth agenda to ensure that the climate is created for growth.” It seems unlikely that the agenda he has in mind would include an increase in the minimum wage, which now is equivalent to about $10 U.S. a day, or $1.25 an hour.
Despite some delays and slow voting in some areas, the election was devoid of major mishaps. Invited international observers gave it their stamp of approval. Unlike Jamaican elections in the 1970s and ’80s, this one was virtually violence-free.
The JLP calculated that it shouldn't wait to the end of its mandate in 2012. A series of corruption scandals prompted the resignation of several government officials in 2011, including Bruce Golding, then the prime minister. The party had been out of power for 18 years before winning a majority in 2007.
Golding quit after initially rejecting an American demand that his government arrest and extradite an indicted drug dealer, Christopher “Dudus” Coke, straining diplomatic relations with Washington. In 2010, the government finally sent hundreds of police and soldiers to search for Coke in his gang’s territory — which Golding represented in parliament. The raid led to more than 70 deaths in Kingston, the capital.
In October, the Jamaica Labour Party selected Andrew Holness to succeed Golding. Holness, 39, became the country’s youngest prime minister. The party hoped to weather the storms of corruption and economic misery with a fresh face who had been untouched by scandal while he served as education minister.
But expensive JLP television ads did not only obsess about the personality of Holness. They viciously attacked Simpson Miller with a noxious brew of sexism and disparagement of her working-class origins, implying that the 66-year-old political veteran is not sufficiently educated or competent to govern. The ads backfired big time.
The question now is what will Simpson Miller and the PNP do in the face of (officially) 13 per cent unemployment and over 16 per cent of the population living below the poverty line? Indeed, to grasp the real levels of joblessness and want, double those figures.
Over the past dozen-plus years, while spending part of each winter in Jamaica, I've befriended a number of activists in the National Workers' Union, a major Jamaican labour central. This past week some expressed their views to me. A current “delegate” (local president) of an NWU bargaining unit told me he's elated by the PNP win, confident that unemployment will not spike. Another acquaintance, a former union “delegate,” shrugged his shoulders, saying “they're both the same.”
What about other parties? The “free enterprise” National Democratic Movement has served as a farm team for the JLP. Golding briefly led the NDM. The policies of the Marcus Garvey People's Political Party are a mystery. Neither the NDM or the MGPPP were able to garner 0.01 per cent of the votes cast. And sadly, the unions remain staunchly “non-partisan,” although the NWU leans towards the PNP, and the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union brass favour the JLP.
The small Stalinist-led Workers' Party of Jamaica, which supported the PNP in its leftist phase until the PNP caved in to IMF pressure, never offered a revolutionary option. The WPJ dissolved in 1992. Its former leader, Trevor Munroe, was appointed to the Jamaican Senate by the PNP. Today, a party run by, and for, the working class remains tragically absent.
At her swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 5, in front of an adoring crowd of thousands, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller called for “national unity,” but waxed a bit to the left. She pledged to tackle poverty and underdevelopment. She said that in a global crisis like the present one, government must take the initiative. But how to square that with a request to the IMF for a more favourable repayment schedule, while shunning the very cuts that IMF conditionalities stubbornly demand?
Simpson Miller added a dash of ginger and a sprinkle of nutmeg. She promised to break ties with the British monarchy and make Jamaica a republic, with its own president. Such a move would, no doubt, stimulate national pride. But it would not put food on the table for the multitude of sufferers. Without socialism, national liberation remains only a tantalizing dream.
So, we are left mainly with questions. When the PNP fails to deliver justice to its working-class electorate, will they hold the party accountable? Will Jamaican workers initiate a fight against the capitalist austerity drive that may lead to a break with capitalist politics, and foster the launch of an independent workers' and farmers' political alternative? Only time, and unfortunately, much more experience with hardship will tell the tale.
> The article above was written by Barry Weisleder, and first appeared in the January 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.