While the US is feeling the Bern, lamenting Trump, grossed out by Cruz and defending/demonizing Hillz, Jamaica is in the midst of it’s own election frenzy!
Jamaica’s democracy functions as a parliamentary system. Seats in parliament are elected on a regional basis, with the party gaining the largest number of representatives becoming the ruling party. So far, election season has been a really educational experience for me and I feel fortunate to be here in an election year. Here’s a little breakdown on how it all works:
- The Prime Minister, currently Portia Simpson Miller of the People’s National Party (PNP), must call a general election within five years of the previous election
- The election date is flexible, meaning once it is announced, things move rather quickly. The election is held 21 days after it is announced
- On January 31st, the PM announced the election date to be February 25th, with nomination day taking place on February 9th
While other parties do exist, there are currently two main political parties: the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). The PNP is represented by the color orange and the JLP is represented by the color green. Since the election was called, there have been a frenzy of rallies and motorcades, lots of people can be seen in the streets wearing their party’s color, radio stations frequently feature political advertisements, and there are flags and posters tacked to what sometimes feels like every light pole. In my near two years in Jamaica, I’ve never seen anything happen so quickly.
Jamaica has a history of political violence. In the 1970s, political warfare ravaged between Michael Manley’s PNP and supporters of Edward Seaga’s JLP, especially in the ghettos of East Kingston. For anyone interested in this period of time, I’d highly recommend Marlon James’ novel A Brief History of Seven Killings.
While the violence of the 70’s is in the past, violent tensions do unfortunately still escalate during election time. We’ve been advised to not wear anything orange or green until the election cycle is over to avoid any political conflict. My school will become a polling place on election day and I’m required to stay far away.
As representatives of the US, Peace Corps Volunteers are advised to stay out of political discussions. That said, the conversations happen all around me and while I’m never an active participant in them, I am always happy to listen and learn.
What has become painfully clear in the last few weeks is how disenchanted many Jamaicans are with the political process. Jamaica is effectively a slave to its IMF loans, and though the loans saved the country from sinking into a sea of bankruptcy, they have led to a major devaluation of the currency. Many Jamaicans feel as though their politicians do not represent them, so they choose not to vote. In the last general election, just over 50% of eligible voters turned out to vote. To put that figure into perspective, in the 2012 US General Election, just 54.9% of eligible voters turned out.
As my neighbor Kutchie put it to me this afternoon when I asked him if he plans to vote on Thursday, “If mi nuh vote, mi nuh ‘ave a voice. If mi nuh vote, den mi kyaan cuss bout di politician dem becaw mi neva di speak mi voice!” (If I don’t vote, I don’t have a voice. If I don’t vote, then I can’t cuss [lament] about the politicians because I never used my voice!).
I’ve encountered many Jamaicans of all ages, as well as heard messages from local groups, encouraging people to drop the colors – that is, not vote based on your granddaddy’s party – and vote based on the issues. This urging to vote on the individual representative and what issues are most important to them is hopeful. It’s simple, yet progressive.
The elections experience has been super educational for me. I was on a bus heading to get my hair cut the other day, and the young woman sitting next to me turned to me and showed me her phone screen with a look of disgust. Someone in her Instagram feed had posted a photo of their nails, painted with their party’s colors and abbreviation. Election nail art! Town criers and motorcades have come through my community blasting promotional songs (of course) and blaring horns, with passengers hanging out of the car windows and helicoptering party color t-shirts over their heads, blowing vuvuzelas along the way. It’s quite a sight!
Anyway, here’s the PNP’s (current ruling party) official campaign song:
And here’s the JLP’s (current minority party) official campaign song:
Oh, and for good measure, here’s a song about corrupt politicians. Because, while Jamaica has improved on the Corruption Perception Index in the last year, it still has a score of only 41/100, with 0 being “perceived very corrupt” and 100 being “perceived very clean.” I still hear people talk about babylon and how politicians are all teefs (theives) and liad (liars). It’s hard out here.
Don’t you just love the political process? Oh, and yes, I plan to vote absentee all the way from Jamaica.