I booked my ticket to Jamaica in late November 2011. I knew I needed to go home for some good relaxation after what had been a challenging transition to a new city and a new school. A couple of weeks later on December 4th, the then Prime Minister of Jamaica announced that Jamaica would be holding elections on December 29th. To my horror (and my family and friends’ dismay as well), this was the day I was flying to Jamaica. I was very much on edge. I had to be using my Jamaican cell phone to communicate constantly with my cousin Julio about what he was hearing on the news, as after my arrival at the airport I had to wait a few hours before going to the bus depot for my three hour commute into Kingston from Montego Bay.
As I traveled on the Knutsford Express, we passed by numerous polling stations and they were all peaceful scenes, I saw the Jamaica Labour Party’s (JLP, the party in power) supporters in their green and People’s National Party’s (PNP) supporters in their orange talking and sitting beside one another as well as laughing with each other. Obviously there had been a paradigm shift in terms of Jamaica’s political culture’s penchant for election violence. I was brimming with excitement at the spirited conversations I’d be having that night with my family at my Uncle Neville’s house about what I observed on my journey to Kingston.
Upon arriving at my Uncle Neville’s house in Kingston, it was a night of political analysis with food and drinks and the house full of family and friends. My uncle is pretty partisan and he supported the victorious PNP which won in a landslide. Although my family (both sets of grandparents were supporters of the PNP) and a few friends tend to be extremely partisan as it relates to the orange and the green, I on the other hand consider myself to be apolitical and wary of political labels. I have seen good and bad in both parties and their policies. To my chagrin none of my cousins voted, nor did any of my close friends. This apathy of my generation of young Jamaicans (a rather negative development) is emblematic of the trend in Jamaica where Jamaican elections have progressively gotten more and more non-violent (a very positive development).
Even though the PNP’s electoral victory had Uncle Neville in a good mood and I had a friend visiting from California and wanted to go visit her about 2 miles away and my aunt had invited me to the PNP victory rally; he was adamant that he didn’t think I should go on the road that night. My uncle’s position was a result of him coming of age in 1970’s and 1980’s Jamaica. To understand his stance I’d have to give a brief history of the Jamaican post independence political milieu.
After independence in 1962 Jamaica emerged as a two-party system with the PNP espousing “Democratic Socialism” and the JLP espousing “Neo-liberalism”. By the 1970’s both parties were dominated by two charismatic figures: Michael Manley (PNP) and Edward Seaga (JLP). Michael Manley was heir to a political dynasty as his father Norman Manley was Jamaica’s premier at independence and founder of the PNP, Michael served as Prime Minister from 1972-1980 and 1989-1992. Edward Seaga, a Harvard educated politician served as prime minister from 1980-1989. These two larger than life figures dominated the Jamaican political landscape for all of the 1970’s and 1980’s and a bitter rivalry ensued that spilled over into the political arena violently.
Both parties were guilty of practicing garrison politics (the establishment of inner city enclaves that are beholden to one of the two political parties), operating as political machines and employing voter intimidation tactics through the use of enforcers. It is even rumored that Bob Marley was shot in the run up to the 1976 election at his home in Kingston because of this enmity between the JLP and PNP, because of his scheduled performance at a PNP sanctioned concert.
In short this went on for much of the seventies, eventually reaching a crescendo during the 1980 election season, when almost 900 people were murdered. When my parents and older relatives speak of the 1980 election, the fear and psychological toll of those memories are all too apparent. Thankfully in my lifetime the violence that comes with this hyper partisan political climate is virtually non-existent or nothing like it used to be at the very least.
Throughout the rest of the 1980’s and 1990s, Jamaica did see some incidence of political violence, but nothing like the 1980 election. By the 2000’s politically motivated gun violence seems to have been the exception at election time. The 2011 election should be described as a “halcyonic” time by Jamaican standards. I can think of one shooting during the period that at first seemed politically related as it happened at a JLP rally in the Western parish of Westmoreland, but the political motives of the shooting has since been disputed. How did Jamaica get here?
Truth be told, the PNP’s and JLP’s policies are not all that different, their “political philosophies”, yes, but as to the details of the policy, I’m not sold. Jamaicans seem to have become more discerning of this and some have even totally disengaged from the political process as they have become disillusioned. Moreover, Jamaicans seem to have eschewed politics based on the establishment of a personality cult (Big man politics), one of the two main prime ministerial candidates in the last election was criticized by many for being too focused on himself as some savior of sorts during the elections. This seemingly put off many Jamaicans. It seems to now be about policy and not personality. Furthermore, the Jamaican population would be livid if any of their political leaders overtly incited violence or openly maintained ties to criminal syndicates (a big departure from the past).
To overcome ethnic divisions in favor of a strong national identity, Kenya would have to undertake significant social engineering, and it will take time, but it is possible. One of the most glaring things any foreigner who goes to Jamaica notices is the palpable and effusive nationalism and national pride present in the island. The Jamaican identity supersedes all other social divisions on the island including socioeconomic and geographic divisions. Go to Jamaica during the Olympics track and field program or the IAAF world championships, matter of fact go to any town or city in Jamaica on any given day and you are bound to see numerous people adorned in some article of clothing with the black, green and gold colors of the flag prominently displayed.
One of things I’m proud of is Jamaica’s political maturation as shown by Portia Simpson being popularly elected in 2011 for her second stint as Prime Minister. A woman being elected as head of Jamaica’s government indicates that Jamaican chauvinist attitudes are on the decline. I think anybody hailing from most Caribbean and African countries can relate to political cultures firmly rooted in patriarchy, impunity and the moral and ethical bankruptcy of politicians. Crystal also alluded to this being a mainstay of Kenyan politics. No doubt she is disillusioned an upset at the outcome of the Kenyan elections. But I’ve encouraged her to be heartened that real change will come with those of our generation who will look at the soundness of policies instead of being susceptible to the empty promises and demagoguery employed by politicians who are corrupt and self-interested and play on social divisions.