Democracy is a system of government where citizens of a country elect representatives to manage the affairs of the country. The three arms of government in a democratic system (the legislature, the executive and the judiciary) should operate on a principle of “the separation of powers”. The Legislature makes the laws, the Executive executes and implement the laws and the Judiciary is a network of court systems that interpret the law.

Jamaica is a Parliamentary democracy based on the British Westminster system with Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state. Parliamentary democracies can either be constitutional monarchies with a King or Queen as the head of state or a Parliamentary Republic; where the head of state is a President.

Our Legislature is called a Parliament and is divided into the House of Representatives and the Senate (bicameral). The Executive is made up of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. The Cabinet consists of Ministers, Ministers of State, the Parliamentary Secretary and the Attorney General.

Voting is a critical part of the democratic process. In a democracy citizens participate in the creation of the government by selecting representatives to the Legislature. Jamaica has fourteen parishes which are divided into sixtythree constituencies. Political parties and independent candidates compete to be voted as the best person to represent an area or a constituency. Successful candidates in each constituency become Members of Parliament (MPs). There are 63 Members of Parliament who sit in the House of Representatives.

Jamaica has a two party system with three registered political parties; the National Democratic Party (NDM), the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP). In May 2020 the Jamaica Progressive Party( JPP) started the process of registering as Jamaica’s fourth political party. In a two party system the political landscape is dominated by only two political parties. The JLP and the PNP are the only two parties that have won elections in Jamaica since the first elections in 1944.

Jamaicans were not allowed to vote until 1944 when the country was granted universal adult suffrage by Britain. The country held its first election on December 12 1944. According to the Jamaican constitution, elections are due every 5 years. There are no fixed dates for elections in Jamaica so the Prime Minister determines the date of the General Election.

Using the “first past the post system” the political party with the most elected representatives ( a simple majority) forms the government and the leader of that political party becomes the Prime Minister. The leader of the political party with the second highest number of representatives becomes the Leader of the Opposition. The Prime Minister and Opposition Leader in consultation with the Governor General appoints Senators and Cabinet Ministers to the government.

Jamaica’s 18th General Election

On August 11, 2020, the Prime Minister of Jamaica announced that the country’s 18th General Election would be held on September 3, 2020 and Nomination day would be Tuesday August 18, 2020.

In his address to the House of Representative on August 11, the prime minister explained that he “wanted to seek another mandate from the people of Jamaica”. The Opposition Leader in making his contribution “welcomed the decision to give the people a chance to exercise their judgment on the stewardship of the country”.

On August 24, at a press conference to update the nation on the COVID-19 pandemic, the Prime Minister, was asked by a journalist to explain his decision to call the General Election while COVID-19 cases were increasing in Jamaica.

The Prime Minister responded by saying;

I was very clear that my focus was on putting a plan in place for our economic recover and we saw very clearly (A )that the plan was in place and that (B ) the signs of recovery were there and therefore a quick opportunity to get a new mandate consolidate the government and move ahead strongly with that mandate. You will know that as you go closer to the point of an election. The authority of the government is always questioned and it becomes very difficult to get projects moving, to get projects executed and implemented and therefore governments always want to opt to renew their mandate before they become what is called … the Americans have a phrase for it…they call it a lame duck government and that is always the challenge as you come closer to the end of the term everybody starts to speculate about the government and those who don’t support the government say

let me wait you out….and it becomes difficult for governments to operate the closer they get to the end of there terms.”

Political parties had 22 days to campaign for the General elections. Campaign activities were restricted due to a ban on mass gatherings to control the spread of COVID-19. The Prime Minister was forced to limit campaigning further after pictures and videos from Nomination day activities showed a lack of physical distancing and wearing of masks.

The Electoral Commission of Jamaica announced that it was ready to conduct the first ever national election during a pandemic using the the World Health Organization and Ministry of Health approved protocols. The protocols included the deployment of 7,400 Sanitation Officers dedicated to keep the voting process sanitized across the 2,200 polling station locations, mandatory thermometer checks, wearing of masks, continuous sanitization procedures, social distancing and the single use of voting pencils by electors.

Persons who tested positive for COVID-19 or who were in quarantine because they had been exposed to a positive patient or would have arrived in the island within 14 days and ordered to remain in a particular location were allowed to vote. Persons aged 75 years and older who were previously under “stay at home orders” as a measure to protect them from COVID-19 were also allowed to vote in the 18th General elections.

The 18th General elections was won by the Jamaica Labour Party, they received the majority of votes in 49 of the 63 constituencies. 713, 112 Jamaicans turned out to vote from a total of 1,913, 410 eligible voters in a population of 2.8 million people. The national voter turnout was 37 %, the lowest since the first election in December 1944. Less than half of the population democratically elected the government.

Footnotes

  1. During the campaigning period between August 23 and August 30 several senior government officials tested positive for COVID-19, among them the Police Commissioner , the Political Ombudsman, the General sectary of the People’s National Party, the Mayor of Port Maria, the Mayor of Mandeville and a former Cabinet Minister all tested positive. Other senior officials were forced into isolation because of contact with people who have tested positive.
  2. On September 20, 2020 Dr. D K Duncan former Cabinet Minister and Member of the People’s National Party died in the University of the West Indies Hospital. He was hospitalized after testing positive for COVID-19 during August 23-30 period.
  3. The Minister of Health and Wellness declared community transmission of COVID-19 at a press conference on September 4, 2020. “Community Transmission means the virus can no longer be easily traced from one member of the population to the other and that the concern for the transmission for COVID-19 is now islandwide.”.
  4. Trinidad and Tobago conducted its general election August 10, 2020. On August 15, the government announced that the country had entered the community transmission of COVID-19.
  5. Jamaica confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on March 10,2020. On March 11, 2020, the World Health organization declared the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic.
  6. Both political parties have been in Government after a landslide victory. This was the case for the JLP after the 1976, 1980 and 1983 general elections. For the PNP they enjoyed a similar majority after the1989, 1993 and 1997 general elections.

Follow the Jamaican Parliament Audio Database (JPAD) to learn more about Parliamentary democracies. The Jamaican Parliament Audio database is a project about history and national memory. It is a collection of audio from sittings in the House of Representatives and Senate in Jamaica from 2016 to present. Excerpts from the database are aired on Decolonizing the archive radio every Wednesday 3pm BST or 9am JA time.