PUBLIC AFFAIRS - A strong Opposition will be needed
Don Robotham, Contributor
'Which ever party is in power, Jamaica will still be a small, open economy highly dependent on global economic forces outside of our control.'
Tomorrow is the day on which we decide to whom we shall delegate our government for the next five years. In our tribalist political culture, the tendency is to regard this as a do-or-die moment which will either bring calamity or deliverance.
The focus is on the victor. As some of our great athletes are discovering, Jamaicans can quickly turn their backs on a loser who was their hero only yesterday. But in the situation that we find ourselves the loser may be more important than the winner. Victrix causa diis placuit, sed victa Catoni!
It is vital for Jamaican democracy that we maintain a strong Opposition. The real challenge which we shall face the day after tomorrow will be precisely this: How to ensure that we have a strong Opposition, whoever the loser may be.
If we examine both political parties objectively, we will see that there really is not that much difference between them. In the sphere of economic policy, for example, any change of course would be fatal. The economic realities of Jamaica do not allow much room for manoeuvre: Our problems are deep structural ones which will take many decades to resolve, no matter what.
Whichever party is in power, Jamaica will still be a small, open economy highly dependent on global economic forces outside of our control. We shall still have fundamental deficits in our production system - which is the source of our budget - and trade deficits and our huge debt problem. We will still have our low levels of education, our low levels of productivity, our high rates of youth unemployment, and our low wage levels on Tuesday morning, and for many more Tuesdays to come.
If your reason for voting for one political party over the other is that you believe that this will bring economic changes in the short run, you are barking up the wrong tree.
The same applies to the other critical area of public concern - that of crime. By now,we should have grasped the fact that there is no magic wand to wave to bring down our high homicide rates. This is because this crisis derives from the crisis of our youth, which is a structural one which will take a considerable period of time to resolve. The fight against crime is therefore a daily grind proceeding over the medium term in which we measure progress in milli - not kilometres. This will continue to be so whether Dr. Peter Phillips remains as the Security Minister or a PNP or JL replaces him.
We can say the same thing for education. Both parties have focused on reducing the cost of education to the poor. But that is not the key problem in education.
The critical problem is the low quality of the education which is delivered. Neither party has really focused on this issue - it is too hard to deal with. The proposal to introduce performance pay for teachers tries to address the issue of improving teacher quality - a vital part of the equation.
It is unlikely to work, for various reasons. None of the countries (in Scandinavia and East Asia), which regularly lead in world educational quality, have performance pay for teachers. There is no magic bullet to improve educational quality. Even if we were to develop a policy focus on quality, it would take at least another decade before we would see real progress.
If there are no significant differences in the area of policy, what about other areas of importance? One issue of great public concern has been that of corruption. This has been lamented and denounced in the usual moralistic Jamaican manner without any analysis of the root sociological causes of corruption and how these can be realistically addressed.
The PNP government has rightly been criticised in areas of cost overruns and also on the Trafigura and other cases. The JLP has made this a major theme of its political campaign for a long time. However, there also exists extremely serious concern about some figures on the JLP side.
One of the high points of the recently concluded debates was the moment when a panellist posed an explosive question to Mr. Golding in this department. In fact, she posed it twice, and Mr. Golding brushed it aside in the only way possible - as an unsubstantiated allegation about the unnamed, which was unanswerable.
But the unnamed are not unknown. That answer may have sufficed for a debate, but it won't work in the real world. Both parties are to some extent in the grip of the lumpen. The difference is that the PNP lumpen tend to be black and from downtown, while the JLP lumpen tend to be 'red' and from uptown. Corruption is by no means an issue confined to one side.
Garrison politics - the bane of our political life - is another area of great similarity between our two major political parties. Quantitatively, the PNP exceeds the JLP in the number of such garrisons. But when it comes to garrison quality, the JLP wins hands down!
Again, when asked about this issue in the debate, Mr. Golding gave a clever and plausible response. He suggested that the approach he was adopting to this problem was to engage rather than to avoid it. The implication was that he was embarked on a wide-ranging programme of degarrisonisation reform in his own constituency.
If you believe that, as they say, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. It is not exactly a secret that Mr. Golding has a tenuous hold on his seat which is actually in the gift of others whom we dare not name. Mr. Golding has no political base from which to address the issue of garrisons, whether he is Leader of the Opposition or Prime Minister. The same applies to our current Prime Minister. Therefore, I do not expect any changes in garrison politics, whichever party wins power tomorrow.
None of this means one should abstain. Abstention is not a responsible option. All abstention does is to put the decision in the hands of others. Similarities notwithstanding, one must take the plunge and make a choice.
You must vote
I believe that if one looks calmly at the options, a basis for choice canbe discerned. You must work that through for yourself. Whatever your choice may be, you must vote.
But the fact that the parties are so similar also suggests that very shortly after the election, major disillusionment may set in. The possibility for social instability will be sharply increased. It is vital that we should have a responsible channel into which such grievances may flow.
When the victors sit down with the civil servants and are shown the real accounts of the Jamaican economy - that will be a moment of truth. The winners will discover, if they do not already know, that there is no huge amount of resources hidden away under some mattress in the Ministry of Finance which a wicked minister has been denying them. Empty talk about 'becoming a First World nation' - whatever that means - will prove to be simply that - empty.
They will find out in very practical terms what the shortage of resources actually means for the police in real life. The shortfalls in the resource base of education and health will also hit them like a ton of bricks - for a number of them on both sides seem actually to believe their own propaganda.
At that point, all those marvellous manifestos and slick television ads will vanish without a trace. Flush with the arrogance of victory, who knows what dangerous ploys the new government may attempt?
The temptations of corruption will rise exponentially - to grab while the grabbing is good. Some will be tempted to resort to demagogy and adventurous economic, social and political stratagems, including violence and intimidation, to calm their disgruntled supporters. But with the current pressure on the Jamaican dollar and the dismal global financial situation, playing fast and loose with the economy is the last thing that we need.
On the other hand, the defeated, whoever they are, will be dispirited, fragmented and in disarray. They will also be broke. Whichever side loses will very likely face a leadership crisis of the first order. Recriminations will be intense and bitter.
It will be every man and woman for him and herself. Victory has many fathers, defeat none. We should therefore understand from now that, whatever the outcome, we shall need a strong Opposition. Regardless of who forms the next Government, it's the strength of the vanquished we should be concerned about.