Jamaicas Party System and PNP Dominance.

Robert Buddan


 The elections of October 16 must be seen against a Jamaican tradition of party competition in which the PNP has been the hardest of the parties to beat. The PNP has established itself as the more dominant of the two main parties or as the natural party of Jamaican politics. This is indicated in three ways. Over the 12 contested elections from 1944 to 1997:

 -         The PNP has an average of 50% of the popular votes to the JLPs 45%.

      The PNP has been the more popular electoral party.

-         The PNP has won an average of 29 seats to the JLPs 20. The PNP has been the more dominant parliamentary party.

-         The PNP has won seven elections to five won by the JLP. The PNP has been the more regular governing party.

 The JLP won the first two elections, but the PNP has been the party to gain more as the size of the electorate expanded, levels of voting increased and the number of constituencies grew. This must mean that the PNP has done better in attracting larger numbers and newer generations of voters as they enter the arena of voting. More to the point, as the society has modernized, the PNP has benefited as the party perceived as the party of progressive modernization providing the social, physical and economic infrastructure necessary for urbanization and modernization more than the JLP has, and has benefited as the society inevitably modernizes. The JLP is the party of conservative modernization.

This pattern shows in the fact that the PNP is the stronger urban party. It dominates consistently in Kingston and St. Andrew. At the same time, it has extended its base in the rural parishes as these parishes themselves are inexorably drawn into the whirlpool of modernization.

 The JLPs Weakness

 The JLP is not just facing a party which the polls say is leading as we come up to the 2002 elections but is facing a historical pattern in which the PNP is more established.

The competition between the parties should not be seen just in terms of each election at any one time but against more fundamental patterns of party-electoral relations over a longer period of Jamaicas development.

Even when the JLP has won elections, it has barely done so, and owes its opportunities in government to the First-Past-The-Post (FTPT) electoral system which gives it more seats than votes when it wins. The JLP won clearly in 1944 and won again in 1949, but in the latter year it actually received less votes than the PNP, 42.7% to the PNPs 43.5%.

The JLP won again in 1962 but it received 50% of the votes to the PNPs 49.6%. The JLP won by only 8,359 votes. In 1967, the JLP was returned but only with 50.7% to the PNPs 49.1%. This time the JLPs margin was just about 7,000 votes.

 In these three elections, the JLP won by seat margins of 4, 7 and 13. But all three elections were statistical ties in terms of popular votes. These were not dominant wins at all. In fact, the 1967 elections were very strange. The JLP won by an exaggerated seat margin of 13, yet it only won 7,000 more votes than the PNP did, while suspiciously, the number of electors on the voters list was about 250,000 less than had been on the 1962 list. The PNP charged that the JLP deliberately omitted many younger voters who would have voted PNP.

In the end, the records show that the JLP had never won a contested election with more than 51% of the popular vote, except in 1980. On the other hand, the PNP has been winning elections with popular votes of between 55% and 61% and has done so six times out of the seven elections it has won!!

This history cannot be explained with reference to current personalities and states of party unity, party strategies, issues, condition of the society, intelligence and prejudices of voters, and so on, alone. These are important of course, but they do not explain what happened in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s or 1980s. In fact, too much focus on the current events of politics obscures those explanations which are more deep-seated.

It seems to me that the JLP has been overcome by the progressive modernization of society. The party had its roots in the late plantation society when the BITU and Bustamante were strong in the sugar and banana parishes. The JLP was able to win enough seats in enough rural parishes to win elections.

But the society was changing all the time. Urbanization and a more factory and service-dominated economy along with a growing urban population helped the PNP. During the period of industrialization-by-invitation of the 1950s, the PNP consistently increased its share of the take of new voters faster than the JLP did.

The PNP only lost narrowly in 1962 and 1967 when the JLP still had enough rural support to win a majority of seats. Moreover, the issues of federation and communism (Russian ships in Kingston Harbour) helped to go against the PNP.

Then the PNP came back to capture youth and urban voters as a result of its socialist modernization of the 1970s. But it went further to establish itself in the rural parishes with its educational policies, land reforms, housing development and more modern social legislation. Ultimately, the poor state of the economy and fears of communism gave the JLP an uncharacteristically big victory in 1980 which it extended through the uncontested elections of 1983. 

The PNPs Strength.

Since the 1990s, the PNP has moved further ahead of the JLP, first through the modernization of the partys thinking and organisation, and then by its policies of physical and economic modernization.

 Cellular phones, highways and roads, cable and internet, motor cars and so on, might be dismissed as cheap election-winning, feel-good show pieces. But they signal something more fundamental. They allow people to keep up with standards around the world which they can now more easily compare and enjoy privileged consumer goods associated with middle-class lifestyles from which they were traditionally excluded. They, like the traditional middle class, can now have the latest in consumer goods. If this makes them feel good, then fine. They deserve to feel good too.

 More importantly, access to these items allow people to avail themselves of more opportunities. They can be contacted on their phones more easily for jobs; their places of business are more quickly accessible because the roads are better and go further; they can access others more readily because they have their own cars and better public transportation; they can advertise and do business more widely through the internet; they can do business internationally because foreign exchange is more easily available.

 Modernization reduces the obstacles posed by time and space. This is fundamental to the economics of peoples lives. It brings opportunities closer to people who can access them faster. We would be underestimating the value of these items of modernization if we see them purely as political gimmicks.

 One of the questions that has emerged (in Latin America) in the 1990s has been this: Why is it that neo-liberalism has limited what the state can do for poor people while the market has widened the gap between rich and poor, and yet voters still return liberal parties to government?

 Although there is no simple answer, one suggestion has been that liberalization (of consumer and producer markets and state services) has made a wider array of goods and services (previously limited to the middle class) available to more people and in the process, made them feel that they can do more for themselves.

 The PNP seems to have hit upon a new developmental strategy where growth versus distribution is no longer the issue but where the building of the societal infrastructure for both growth and distribution is; and where that infrastructure gives people the tools and means to grow and benefit for themselves without overdependence on either the state or the markets of the privileged classes.

 This matter needs more looking into. But both the PNP and the JLP need to explore some of the more fundamental reasons why voters feel the way they do about their society and parties if they are to become or remain relevant. Win or lose, both parties should spend the next few years studying the way the society is changing, how values are changing with it, and how these changes are expressing themselves in voting patterns and voting choices.    

 Robert Buddan is a lecturer in the Department of Government, Mona, UWI. E-mail: rbuddan@uwimona.edu.jm