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Jamaica: Portia’s Lenten election

Sunday, February 7, 2016

While we celebrate Carnival, Jamaicans are gearing up for a February 25 election.

The Almighty, in his Jamaican incarnation, apparently has no problem with a Lenten campaign. Indeed, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller says she was “touched” by her “Master” to name that date.

Opposition leader Andrew Holness is also confident that he is close to the Divinity. “Ye, believe in God, believe also in Me…Let not your heart be troubled,” he said a week ago, just hours before Portia called the contest. 

Like Jamaica’s governor-general and around one-eighth of the population, Holness is a devout Seventh-Day Adventist.

The governing People’s National Party, meanwhile, put out a special release, assuring voters that every single one of their 63 candidates would be in church this weekend, asking for guidance. 

They will doubtless do their asking in the curious mix of antique King-James-speak and rootsy dialect which marks Jamaican campaigning.

When he told her to pick February 25, Portia’s Master maybe had half a hard-boiled eye on the annual budget—due in March, and expected this year to include some nasty medicine.

Like its Jamaica Labour Party predecessor, Portia’s government has implemented a tough-minded IMF austerity programme. 

Her finance minister (and campaign director) Peter Phillips two weeks ago was named the Gleaner newspaper’s Man of the Year after passing ten successive IMF quarterly tests.

His results? Economic growth below one per cent, unemployment at one-in-eight of the workforce, and the Jamaica dollar worth less than one US cent.

But last year, public sector workers won tiny wage increases, following a three-year freeze. And next month, the minimum wage goes up to the equivalent of just under TT$330 for a 40-hour week.

For those concessions, the IMF will demand a price. They wrote just before Christmas: “Next fiscal year, there will be a systematic effort to modernize the public sector with an overall reduction in public sector employment.” 

Translation: fewer jobs. And there may be other cutbacks. There’s no constitutional need for an election before April 2017; but Portia’s Master has it right—she is wise to get the election over before this year’s budget.

There are some economic bright spots. The low oil price is near-death for T&T; but it’s manna from heaven for Jamaica.

Cheaper fuel means lower electricity bills, lower pump prices for gas, and lower air fares to pull in the tourists—for all of which, Portia is quick to take credit, much to the Opposition’s annoyance.

After almost half a century of economic stagnation, Jamaican expectations are set low. Economic output per person is less than one-quarter of T&T’s.

Prosperity does not mean that “you have a whole heapa money,” says Opposition Leader Holness, “Prosperity can mean that you can now fix yuh roof that when yuh look up yuh nah see the sky … It mean you can send all a yuh pickney dem go school and yuh nuh haffi stop dem because yuh nuh have lunch money.”

On other fronts too, expectations are low. In the year of the 1980 election, Jamaicans were shell-shocked by more than 899 murders, more than twice the previous record. 

Last year, there were 1,207. Today, it takes real drama to make the news. Like last Tuesday, when ten gangsters armed with AK47s and M16s burst into a bar at Salt Spring, near Montego Bay, the tourist capital. They left three dead, among them the 18-year-old female bar tender.

Few Jamaicans believe that a change of government will make even the slightest difference to the murder rate.

Other fixed points are equally depressing. Under both parties, Jamaica’s corruption index from Transparency International has been within a point of two of T&T’s.

Neither party seems too concerned about the environment. Two weeks ago, the environment minister Robert Pickersgill removed a cessation order which blocked a developer who wanted to use sand mined at the beach resort of Negril for a hotel construction project on the other side of Jamaica.

The economy, he said, “outweighs all other considerations.” 

As a tourist destination, Jamaica has a mixed record. Last week, Bloomberg Business listed 16 Caribbean islands favoured by America’s super-rich. Jamaica placed a disappointing 14th, in part because of “a nasty record on human rights (particularly LGBT) and a reputation for Girls Gone Wild stoner antics.” 

For now, Portia’s People’s National Party has a small lead in the latest opinion polls; but around half the voter sample say they either won’t vote, or don’t know which party to choose.

That statistic gives hope to JLP. Others find voter apathy depressing, if understandable.

The Gleaner started the year, as is its wont, with a long screed from a team of Prophetesses and Prophets. They said: “Death, disaster, and destruction will continue to plague Jamaica because the leaders have refused to seek the path of God.” So: trouble again?

But the Prophets also said: “The number 16 symbolises new beginnings.” Who knows? They could be right.


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