By James Thiébault
With all eyes turned to high profile elections in the United States, Austria and Italy (for the referendum) among others, the local government elections in Jamaica were unlikely to be top of mind for most. Of course, for myself living in Jamaica this was significantly more salient. Much is different in elections in Jamaica compared to Canada, Jamaican elections are frequently punctuated by violence, there are only two parties whom attempt to curry favour, and December elections are more likely to be impeded by heat exhaustion than snow storms. Despite this panoply of variances between these countries, both have inherited First Past The Post (FPTP) as our method of determining elections from our common former colonial power, Britain.
Canada has been awash in deliberations on electoral reform. Prime Minister Trudeau made it a common refrain in his election campaign and the Special Committee on Electoral Reform in Parliament was established in order to examine alternatives to the FPTP system. It was with all of this in mind that I examined the local elections in Jamaica. It is worth noting that local elections here are contested by the same two parties as nationally, and that parish councils, which ultimately pick a mayor are elected through FPTP districts. Basically, analogous to how both Jamaican, and Canadian national (as well as provincial) elections are determined.
With that out of the way here is what I noticed. I would be in areas where there was no sign of an election. No election signs nor campaign stops here. Sometimes there would be gigantic displays and colours for only one of the parties, helping punctate the futility of voting against the prevailing party. These were in safe districts, where those who did not vote for the dominant party were simply wasting their votes. In Canada, I have often lived in areas where the seats were safe. While there were perhaps a few more signs of life in the campaign in these areas compared to Jamaica, the eerie emptiness when compared to hotly contested ridings was much the same. This provided a blunt reminder of the disenfranchisement FPTP can have, in Jamaica just as in Canada.
What is different in Jamaica is the fact that as has been mentioned before, there are only two parties that have any realistic opportunity to win seats. While Canada might have only two parties seen as capable of forming government, others still do win ridings. Anyone who has paid attention to Canadian politics remembers appeals to vote for whichever party in a a particular riding was most likely to defeat the Conservatives. This concern over so called “vote splitting” led many to vote against their preferred option. However, Jamaica does not have this problem which should in theory lead to much more accurate election results. In Canada, a winner take all system with multiple parties means that a candidate with a small minority of the vote can win since votes were spread among many other parties. This should lead to more wasted votes and results that are less representative of the popular vote than a locale with only two viable parties. Not so however, looking at numbers taken from a national newspaper, the winning party in Jamaica (the Jamaica Labour Party) won 52% of the vote but 57% of the seats in contention. On the losing side, the PNP garnered 47% of the vote but received a measly 43% of the seats (The Gleaner, 2016). Simple arithmetic shows us that there is a 9% discrepancy between popular vote and the seats as allocated. This problem was even worse in national elections in 2012 where the winning party got a commanding 66% of seats despite only winning less than 53% of the popular vote (Jones, 2012). The aforementioned experiences are familiar to any Canadian who remembers Conservative majority rule with a minority of the overall vote, a regional Bloc Quebecois party representing Canada’s official opposition, or even our current majority government which enjoys a 54% majority of seats with a paltry 39.5% of the vote (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 2015).
Finally, this last point is far more anecdotal, but one argument made is that the advantage of FPTP is that there is a closer link between the MP and her/his constituents than other electoral systems. I noticed however how pervasive complaints were in Jamaica about how disconnected citizens felt from their local representative, especially at the local government level. One would think that Jamaica, which is significantly smaller both population wise and geographically than Canada, would be perfectly suited for a close connection between constituents and their representatives. I see no evidence that this is so, and the feeling of frustration at the lack of response to community needs from elected representatives is palpable, especially in those so-called safe seats as has been outlined above. Again, Canadians are also often hard pressed to even name their elected representatives, much less closely align them with important work they are doing for the community.
In sum, somewhat unexpectedly the recent elections in Jamaica, despite alien ideas like avoiding certain areas known for election violence or being careful of what colours I wore, were actually more notable for the similarities to back home and the critical lessons which must be learned from this. Despite in some ways being an ideal candidate for FPTP due to a two-party system and small size, Jamaica is still plagued with wasted votes, ignored constituents and distorted results. Canada is hopefully on the road to fixing our system, my experience in Jamaica simply reiterates the importance of this process.
James Thiébault is a Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist with Eve for Life in Kingston, Jamaica.