With a finesse not uncharacteristic of Jamaican politics at its higher levels, the country has seen a new, and unprecedentedly young (38) Prime Minister sworn in following Bruce Golding’s resignation. Certainly Andrew Holness’ Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) will be hopeful that the generally welcome reception given to his appointment will provide the country with some tranquillity, and allow him to consolidate his authority, or feel that he can quickly call for fresh elections almost a year before they would be constitutionally due. As we look backwards, it would appear that both the JLP itself, and the country at large, had come to the conclusion that Bruce Golding had lost political legitimacy as a result of the Dudus affair and its resulting confrontation with the United States, and that only his quick withdrawal would allow for a cleansing of the country’s reputation, and a return to smooth relations with the United States in particular, something which Jamaicans treasure.
It appears also, that the opposition Peoples National Party decided to desist from exploiting Golding’s predicament. In a region where there tends to be so much bitterness, real or simulated, between governments and opposition, they have visibly and fully participated in all the constitutional functions which the country has had to go through, and allowed the political arrangements which the JLP has had to undertake, without seeming to be exploiting the situation. The new Prime Minister, in turn, decided to go directly to one of the roots of the situation that led to Golding’s fall, recognizing the undeniable fact that it has become a common predicament of both parties, and to invite the PNP leadership to join in tackling the issue of the establishment of so-called garrison constituencies.
In these constituencies, mainly in the urban areas, where the party that constitutes the majority, rigidly – that is by the threat and the use of physical force – excludes the other from meaningful participation, there has been in existence since the mid-to late 1960s, a situation of one-party rule. It is under these conditions that the constituencies have become havens for drug barons, well beyond the reach of the law, with the result, during the Dudus affair, that the government had to resort to the use of the army, with a consequent massive loss of life.
Both parties, it would appear, now recognize the damage done, not only to the functioning of a proper constitutional democracy, but to the country’s international reputation, with the additional threat of the potential scaring away of visitors to an island which heavily depends, both in terms of employment and access to foreign exchange, on tourism. And it is probably the case that this garrison constituency effect has been exacerbated by the fact that the last two JLP prime ministers have represented them, as also was the case of long-time Minister of Finance, Omar Davies, from the PNP side. What has become clear in that context, however, is the rude awakening of the Jamaican political class that no status is too high to inhibit the United States from increasingly insisting on the necessity to ensure that no one in our countries is protected from subordination to the law – a mistake which Golding and his JLP with their long-standing reputation as the strongly pro-American party in the Jamaican political system, seems to have made.
However long Prime Minister Holness intends to remain in office before calling elections, he is well aware that parallel to the garrison and drugs issue for seriousness is that of the state of the Jamaican economy, and the implications of what now is a long-term relationship with the International Monetary Fund.
The government is in the throes of negotiating new terms with the Fund, in a situation where there seems not to have been much progress since the last negotiations. The debt situation remains serious; the new Prime Minister has called, like his predecessor, for fiscal discipline, even as the public sector unions demand better terms; and the pressure is on the government from the IMF for further divestment of public sector institutions, and for further liberalization of the economy. At the same time, the government is being accused, and not simply by the opposition, of using one of its public sector programmes, the Jamaica Development Infrastructure Programme, based on US$400M loan funds from China, as a “‘slush fund,”’ as if to demonstrate to the IMF that the patient has not yet been cured. And while indeed, the tourism industry has done well to attract a consistent level of visitors to the country – it is now the biggest foreign-exchange contributor to the economy – there is some fear that the continuing recessionary conditions in both the United States and the United Kingdom could well act as a brake on this trend.
As general elections approach, the last being held in August 2007, there has developed a perception that the new Prime Minister may well wish to use the present ‘feel good’ factor about him and call them sooner rather than later. On the other hand, the polls have been showing the PNP ahead, though with JLP gaining some traction since Golding’s departure. Indications of an early poll might be that not many changes have been made to the Golding Cabinet, and that Holness may be feeling the need to give himself some time to make judgements about present ministers and potential candidates for ministries.
On the other hand, Holness’ selection was particularly welcomed on the basis that he, among the younger crew of ministers in the post-1997 government, had developed a good reputation as Minister of Education. It may well be felt by party strategists that this should be taken advantage of now, inhibiting the PNP, with few well-known new faces, from having any more time to modernize its image.
Of course, as the change-over in Jamaica has taken place with such rapidity, and the focus of both parties is, naturally, largely on domestic affairs, it will have been noticed that the new Prime Minister hasn’t said much about Jamaica’s place in the region. Mr Holness did not, predictably, attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Australia, and so his Caricom colleagues will not have had a chance to acquaint themselves with him. All this is probably understandable, and is likely to continue to be the case until the bell rings again, and the Prime Minister obtains his own mandate or a new alternative government is chosen.