Today is the first of three consecutive days Cuso has required volunteers to shelter in place (i.e. stay home and don’t leave) while the rest of the country votes in a federal election, which will take place tomorrow (February 25). While the need to shelter in place doesn’t happen very often (one Cuso volunteer who has been here since July 2015 told me yesterday that she has never had to shelter in place before), the requirement doesn’t seem unreasonable or unusual in the eyes of locals.
Historically, elections in Jamaica have been spirited, often violent affairs, and while the last several elections were relatively peaceful, everyone (not just Cuso) is very careful. Schools were let out early today, most businesses are closed all day tomorrow, and police and military personnel voted on Monday so that they would be available to handle any uprisings that may occur.
Elections in Jamaica are held every 5 years, with the specific election day selected by the ruling party a few months in advance. The government follows the British Parliamentary system: the House of Representatives has 63 members, each elected for five-year terms in single-seat constituencies, while the Senate has 21 appointed members, 13 chosen by the Prime Minister and 8 by the Leader of the Opposition.
There are two dominant political parties in Jamaica: the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). The PNP is a democratic socialist party, while the JLP is conservative. Both were founded by national heroes in the era leading up to Jamaican political independence from Britain in 1962.
It seems that politics are a dirty game in Jamaica. Both parties have garrison strongholds that provide votes through threats of violence in return for cash bribes and favouritism during the course of the term. Educated, community-minded people actively avoid political activity (even non-partisan efforts) and refuse to vote as they believe the entire process to be corrupt. I’ve heard the election period called “the silly season” many times, and most people who’ve shared their views with me seem to feel it is a glorified popularity contest, albeit with significant consequences. There is a desire for ‘real change’, but an election (no matter who wins or loses) doesn’t seem like it will make much of a difference.
This disillusion is of grave concern to the Electorial Commission of Jamaica (ECJ). An article in today’s newspaper stated that the ECJ “ urged electors from every strata of society to go out and vote, saying it is good for Jamaica and democracy. The ECJ notes that public opinion polls indicate that close to 50 per cent of the electorate will not vote. It says this is in contrast to the 1970s and 80s when voter turnout peaked in the region of 80 per cent. The ECJ says although there has been an increase in voter apathy globally, no one, including the political parties and civil society, should be proud of the current statistics locally.”
In the shelter of my apartment, my only clue as to current the political climate is the news in my Twitter feed. I’m confident that I will be safe here at home, and I hope the rest of the country can enjoy the same privilege. Stay tuned for election results!