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Gov't and the long struggle for democracy
EMANCIPATION came there were two primary struggles over democracy
and governance in Jamaica. One was over the democratic control
of Local Government and the other was to make Local Government
serve new and broader interests. Property restrictions on
the right to vote excluded the majority of Jamaicans from
the electorate. However, since property qualifications were
lower for voting in Local Government elections (then called
vestry elections), persons of small property had a better
chance to get elected to the vestry councils. This was the
level of democracy that the first free Jamaicans concentrated
their campaigns on.
since Central Government concentrated on providing services
that assisted the large plantations rather than the newly
independent peasantry, Government served the interests of
the big planters rather than the small farmers, shopkeepers
and artisans. Roads, railway lines and water systems, for
example, were built to service the large plantations rather
than the independent communities.
the struggle for democratic control of Local Government in
Jamaica began with the first vestry elections after Emancipation
in the 1840s, the struggle for a system of Government that
could serve the wider society came after the Morant Bay Rebellion
of 1865. It was at this time that the inefficient and corrupt
vestry system was abolished. It is not often appreciated that
Paul Bogle and his rebels struck a fatal blow to the old Local
Government system that had served the privileged. The vestries
only supported the clergy and its churches, provided some
poor relief, maintained a few roads and assisted in keeping
public order, that is, keeping people from rebelling.
new law in 1867 reduced the number of Jamaica's parishes to
14 and created in place of the vestries, the Municipal and
Road Boards. These authorities, however, were even less democratic
than the vestries were. The old political class in Jamaica
had feared the rising influence of Jamaica's free voters and
the rising numbers of ordinary Jamaicans who were being elected
to the local councils. The elective vestry system was abolished.
The Municipal and Road Boards were appointed by the Governor.
the Morant Bay Rebellion had forced the colonial government
to accept that conditions of the ordinary people were deplorable.
As a result, a more modern system of Local Government was
introduced. In 1886, Parochial Boards were created and new
functions were given over to them. Responsibility for public
health, public markets, fire services, sanitation, public
cleansing, abattoirs, public beaches, building regulations
and street lighting were added over time.
1944, Jamaicans achieved universal adult suffrage and the
first fully democratic elections to Local Government were
held in 1947. It took 100 years between the first elections
to the vestries in which free Jamaicans could participate
for full political freedom to provide Jamaicans with the right
to elect their own local representatives.
next important phase in the struggle for local democracy and
local governance began in 1985. Two political crises threatened
Jamaican democracy. First, snap elections were called in 1983
on an outdated voters' list causing the PNP to boycott those
general elections. Those uncontested elections produced a
voter turnout of only three per cent. The PNP, therefore,
regarded the Local Government elections, the first and only
contested elections of any kind between 1980 and 1989, as
a referendum of sorts on the Government.
in 1985 the JLP Government reduced the number of local authorities
and centralised revenue collection, virtually undercutting
effective Local Government. There was a national reaction.
The 1986 Local Government elections produced a voter turnout
of over 60 per cent, equivalent to the general election turnout
of the last two elections. The JLP lost badly. Even as recently
as 1998, Mr. Seaga refused to lead the JLP in the Local Government
elections and did not want the JLP to participate at all.
1990s marked a new phase in strengthening Local Government
and local democracy. A programme of Local Government reform
was launched in 1993.
most important aspects of this are: expanding the powers of
revenue collection and the support base of local authorities;
creating new municipalities; providing for new and locally-determined
the possibility of directly elected mayors; and establishing
local and regional development committees to involve partnerships
with civil society. These are supported by a decision to enshrine
Local Government in a new constitution.
are the most profound changes prescribed for Jamaica's Local
Government in the historic struggle for local democracy and
local governance. The reforms are consistent with the modern
democratic movement in many countries aimed at devolving power
to local authorities, empowering citizens in so doing and
concentrating on good governance as the critical element in
development. Yet, this movement is facing counteracting trends
such as a decline in community identity and community values,
a decline of respect for political and social leaders and
a decline in general civility.
1996 report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
found that the decline of community values was Caribbean-wide.
It explained that "The decline of community is seen as
a by-product of internal and external migration, greater social
mobility, the disappearance of institutions that served as
poles around which community action took place, lack of participation
of fathers, the decline of attendance at church-related activities,
by young men in particular, the appearance of the 'block'
or 'street corner lime' as an alternative mechanism for transmitting
norms as to what values and forms of dress are cool and what
current struggle, therefore, is not just for democracy but
for community. The basis for community democracy is there.
The evidence is that rural residents do have a strong or at
least stronger propensity for community participation than
do urban ones. As local centres develop into strong commercial
and population centres (such as Portmore) demands are made
for a stronger role in local administration. Governments themselves
come to recognise that devolution makes administrative sense.
a Canadian study has pointed out, the pace of change might
outrun the development of institutions needed to handle change
in a peaceful way. The reason a strong Local Government system
is necessary is that society is demanding greater participation
while the Government machinery is inadequate to absorb and
respond to these increased demands. Strong Local Government,
therefore, provides stronger capacity to govern.
restrictions kept Jamaicans out of Government and democracy
for 100 years after Emancipation. If someone did not pay taxes
of a certain amount he could not vote. But property rights
can strengthen democratic opportunity. The same property that
restricted democracy can strengthen it. It is agreed that
Local Government needs a stronger revenue base if it is to
be able to do more.
Canadian study offered the position that property taxes are
a reliable source of revenue for financing Local Government
services and facilities. It found that property taxes were
low in Jamaica but it is a politically sensitive issue and
Govern-ments have been hesitant about raising more revenue
from property. This is one area
for healthy dialogue.
Development Committees should raise this issue in their consultations,
while identifying the services that could be provided from
this source of additional revenue.
reform process is already encouraging. Dionne Jackson Miller
reported Andrew Farncombe as saying: "I think there have
been significant strides forward. You see town hall style
meetings happening... local governments are taking their budgets
to the people for the first time, and... the establishment
of Parish Development Committees has meant that the average
Jamaican has a better voice in local affairs."
an international expert on urban management, has been working
with the Jamaican Government on Local Government reform. The
current drive by the Kingston and St. Andrew Parish Development
Committee is a good example of Local Government's consultative
efforts with citizens to develop the country's main city.
forthcoming Local Government elections should be seen as a
referendum on Local Government reforms. The reforms in the
making are critical from the standpoint of where Jamaica is
coming from and where it must go. Jamaicans should vote for
candidates who are committed to the programme of reforms.
A strong Local Government system is the foundation for a strong
Robert Buddan lectures in the Department of Government, Mona,
UWI. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.