Phillip Paulwell, six-term Member for Kingston Eastern and Port Royal of Parliament, wrote in The Sunday Gleaner, March 6, that he was disappointed by low voter turnout, “political tribalism,” and the obstacles to Jamaica becoming the paradise it longs for.
Paulwell explains that Jamaica’s political system is violent, involving violence, and zero-sum. Power rotates between the Government and the Opposition. The winners try to govern the best interests of the society, while the losers want to see the Government fail to get elected.
Paulwell points out that there has been a 24-percentage-point drop in voter turnout over four general elections (from 61.46 percent in 2007 to 37.85% in 2020). This suggests that the government model is failing. Paulwell says a trust deficit among voters and that voter apathy is “deeply concerning.” Paulwell believes that political tribalism is to blame.
Paulwell suggests that the People’s National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) leave aside political tribalism to reach a consensus “to drive constitutional reform.”
Bipartisan consensus is necessary for constitutional reform. This is to establish the Caribbean Court of Justice as the country’s highest court and make it a republic. But, does Paulwell have enough knowledge about voter apathy despite his immense contribution to its creation? Is he sure that it is not a problem of political tribalism that can be solved constitutionally? What about the “model” of Government?
Before he begins “interrogating social arguments surrounding voter apathy,” attending the meetings at Vale Royal on his proposal for proportional representation and going to the meetings about the constitution at Vale Royal, it might be useful if he went and gently asked (no interrogation, please) the good folks of Kingston Eastern, Port Royal, which he had represented for 25 years straight, why only 65.22 percent of them voted in 1997 when he first was elected, and only 25.56% voted in 2020, a decline of 40 percentage point drop, in turn, out to vote, when he last elected in, a decrease of 40%
Maybe Mr. Paulwell should ask himself why the constituency he represents for 25 years has the lowest voter participation in the country out of the 63. I’m sure that some of his constituents would love to have him there.
Paulwell proposes proportional representation to solve voter apathy following the Gleaner’s lead. While proportional representation might bring more politicians into Parliament, which may be Paulwell’s goal, if not the Gleaner’s, it is unlikely that it will bring more people to the polls. Although I thought that Paulwell was deliberately avoiding the real reasons for the party’s poor performance at recent polls, I don’t have any evidence that I won’t write it. He may have been blinded by what appears to be his epiphany and has since come to terms with the fact that political tribalism is the answer to everything.
Paulwell’s mistaken belief that voter turnout is due to political tribalism is not unique. In a Gleaner article, Dr. Alfred Dawes stated this astonishing statement: “Rest assured that voter turnout [at 2020 elections] was significantly greater in polling divisions drawn out of the garrisons.” The worst turnouts are for the upper and middle classes. “The garrisons elect our government when voter turnout is low.” This claim is not supported by evidence.
The six constituencies with the lowest voter turnout in the 2020 General Election were East Kingston, Port Royal, with Phillip Paulwell at 25.56 percent; North West St James, with “Data” Chang, 28.16%; East Central St Andrew with Data Phillips 29,47%; North West St Andrew with Data Clarke (30.16%); South West St Andrew with Data Burke (30.38%); and Central St Catherine with Babsy Grange at just 30.46%. The majority of these politicians are multi-star generals or doctor politicians. How many of these six constituencies constitute “garrisons,” and how many are populated by the middle and top classes? The three constituencies with the highest voter turnout were South West St Elizabeth (52.15%), South East St Elizabeth (50.53%), and South East St Mary (53.83%). Dr. Dawes made a mistake.
Paulwell believes that there is no political consensus. He is mistaken. There is consensus, Paulwell. There is consensus about the neoliberal PNP/JLP/IMF policies imposed on this nation over the past four decades. They have created a “utopia for endless exploitation.” There is consensus on the financialization of the economy, the debt reduction strategy, and the cutting of the size and privatization of State assets. This has greatly diminished its role in economic life and society and allowed monied interests to capture it. Mr. Paulwell, there is an agreement between the two groups of political, tribal leaders, and their financial masters, to secretly undo democratic governance, make State institutions “independent” of democratic control, geld unions, rewrite tax codes, and place legal shackles, (fiscal responsibility laws) on politicians to stop them being responsive to the demands from the electorate. The Government, which has been adjudged incompetent or corrupt, has been intentionally undermined. So-called “non-governmental” organizations can monitor it.
Low voter turnout is a good thing for those who want the people to lose their interest in the State as provider or arbiter and “personally take responsibility” for their affairs. Voters have not gone to the polls as was planned. If politics and deep-rooted politicians offer no solution or alternative, why vote? Isn’t it better to assume “personal responsibility” for your welfare? To create one’s own moral, separate political economy. Better yet, escape from what Andrew Salkey’s Obeah man, Dada Johnson, called this “suicide spot.” “And since everything has been financialized, and politics are nah duh nutten fi mi,” then you can make yuh wine affi fi my vote.
I suspect that voter apathy is not a constitutional problem. It is a political problem. It concerns competing interests as well as the ownership and distribution of resources. People must have faith that the political system will work in their favor, do what is best for them, and improve their lives. This is why people vote. If trust between the electorate, politicians, and the State could be destroyed, and the State rendered useless, feckless, and incompetent, then marketers and scammers, scoundrels, and pirates would be able to delegitimize, capture, and dominate the State and use it for their nefarious purposes.
A severely depressed electorate makes it easier for neoliberal policies to be implemented, even if they face less resistance. Mr. Paulwell, politicians, do not govern in society’s best interests. They follow the orders of their master puppeteers, who have vested interests.
The PNP had diverted from its core values over the past three decades, particularly in 2013-2016, when it was subject to severe austerity. When it was in power, it never addressed inequality. It also chose not to educate the people about the limitations imposed on them by the international and domestic political economies and their options.
It claimed that there was no other option. It lost the 2016 elections by about 3,000 votes, with a voter turnout at 48 percent. After dumping the bitter medicine that had been previously expelled down the throats, the Government pushed state assets down into the hands of pirates while the people swallowed it.
It lost 102,000 votes in 2020 to a voter turnout that was 38 percent because it failed to differentiate itself and stand out from the rest. Opposition’s fundamental error is its inability to reflect and criticize the harsh austerity policies it had implemented, which the JLP continued.
Instead, the PNP chose to take credit for them, often complaining that it was not acknowledged in their “success.” Its concept of Opposition is to look at every government policy and then say, “we do dat first.” This is a terrible way to run an Opposition Party.
Paulwell said that politicians could sometimes be their worst enemies. They can talk bad about each other and cause disaffection among the people. He believes that the decline in voter turnout may be related to this. It is not a bad speech, Mr. Paulwell. It is bad policy that is the root cause of discontent. People are tired of politics and have given up on it.
Why vote when there are no other options? Did you know that your party received far fewer votes in the 2020 general elections (38% voter turnout) than it did in the 1980 General Election (87% voter turnout)? Is that because of the negative comments your party made about each other? 1980 was when politicians did bad things about one another and caused people to do terrible things to themselves.
I urge Paulwell and his party to offer an alternative to the Washington consensus — one that addresses their concerns about the social and moral injustices of poverty, inequality, and unemployment. It is essential to give people a choice to end their apathy. You’ll be amazed at the results. It is essential to ensure that the party does not have the chance of losing power to Mr. Paulwell. He also risks losing more than 20% of the East Kingston and Port Royal residents who will vote at the next election. In the last general election, Mr. Paulwell’s party was defeated in many of its strongholds.
It’s right that Paulwell’s party is doing a self-evaluation. This includes examining its core values and determining why it has lost support. It must restore trust in its progressive power as a force for positive change. Paulwell should contribute to this process. However, it should be much more than what he has provided on the pages.