Jamaica was sailing along towards elections on August 27. Opinion pollsters and ordinary citizens were making their calculations about who would come out ahead on voting day. The various debates between PNP and JLP heavy weights, culminating in the debate between PM Portia Simpson-Miller and JLP leader, Hugh Golding, seemed to have given JLP an edge heading towards the last week. Then, buddum!
Nature, who has no votes, but often can be critical in how things turn out, wanted to have its say. A hurricane of enormous proportions started its way across up the string of Caribbean islands, with its eye set on Jamaica. Fast forward. The eye passed the island by, but there was still a devastating impact on several parts of the country. But, outside the concerns of meterologists, the hurricane had changed more than the physical landscape of Jamaica. The electoral landscape was dramatically changed, and now is in a sea of uncertainty.
The PM decided to institute a month long state of emergency as the hurricane knocked out electricity, and criminals seemed poised to create more than a little havoc under cover of darkness. With the hurricane past, but with only 20 percent of the island with power, that state of emergency has not been lifted, even though there have been many reasoned calls for this (see, for example, The Gleaner editorial of August 21). The editorial was a classic for succintness:
It is essential that this emergency comes to an end immediately. The security forces are clearly on top of the situation. There is no threat to law and order. There is nothing “likely to endanger the public safety or to deprive the community, or any substantial portion of the community, of supplies or services essential to life”. No justification for prolonging the emergency beyond today exists. It must come to an end now.
The PM said that she did consult with the opposition, so wont accept any accusations that she sewed disunity in the nation, and is having no hesitation continuing with the state of emergency.
Meanwhile, a certain confusion has set in about the date of the election. August 27 could not work, not least because the security services and poll workers could not vote this week, as previously expected. News came out that the Electoral Commission had proposed September 3 and that this had been accepted by the Governor General, and that date seemed agreed as a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education and Youth announced that schools would not reopen that day but on September 10, acknowledging that many schools also act as voting stations. (If the original date chosen had been a play on 7, how could a play on 3s and 9s–with their very different spiritual significance–work?) Cabinet met in emergency session on August 21 to consider a recommendataion that the elections be postponed from August 27 to September 3 and that members of the security forces go to the polls on August 28, one week later than the August 21 date that was first set. But the PM in a national address on August 22, made no mention of a date for the election.
So what now? Part of the confusion is a result of a protocol mix up. The Electoral Commmission should have put its recommendation to Cabinet before handing it to the Governor General. That should be easy to overcome, and presumably is a lesson for the future. Not surprisingly, there are those who feel that more time will help PNP to get the benefits of the hurricane in terms of largesse that will start to flow in terms of dealing with the damage. But, some believe that the continued state of emergency will be a bigger negative than any positive from the largesse, so while that stays in place it will hurt PNP’s chances. While tourism seems to have been able to escaped major damage, that has not stopped a rapid campaign to reassure foreigners that “Jamaica is open”. The country’s agricultural sector took a big hit, especially bananas. That could factor into fears about economic prospects, at least in some areas in the short run. Rehabilatiton needs will create some possibilities for jobs and some patching up that might sway some but it’s hard to see that this will really matter much to anybody who has had years without something basic like a good road or other social service. In the meantime, the Jamaica Power Service seems to be drawing back from any promises about when it can get power back to most of the island, and until that occurs, it hard to see (sorry for the pun) how the right conditions exist for holding elections.
So, for at least a while the country is really stumbling in the dark and more than a little confused. My own naive opining had been that the longer the time between announcement and election, the worse the situation for PNP: under the British-sytle parliamentary system incumbents are not usually helped by delay. Now, there is confusion and that delay could be good or bad, but much will rest on what is really done with that time. It could be a bumpy few weeks ahead.