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PEOPLE AND THINGS: Jamaica review

Peter Wickham

PEOPLE AND THINGS: Jamaica review

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The recently concluded Jamaica election gives the analyst food for thought that goes beyond that which was presented on January 1 and was almost exclusively focused on leadership issues.  
On this occasion the focus is on the actual electoral outcome there as it relates to the two political parties and their overall performance electorally. Initially, however, a comment needs to be made regarding the “utility” of pre-election polling which has been heavily criticized in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean.
Naturally, this author is anxious to comment on this issue and review the work of his “peers” in this business and it is important first of all to note that Jamaica is a unique case in many ways since there are generally three polling entities that offer opinions and pollsters generally work for media organizations.  
The public often has the impression that media polls are the only “trustable” ones, which is perhaps partially true but not for the reasons that most people believe.  
Media polls are trustable largely because these are commissioned and released without fear or favour, while polls which are “sponsored” by third parties are often withheld since these might tell a story that is unfavourable to the sponsor.
In the case of Jamaica, one of its more widely read publications, The Gleaner, commissioned a series of Bill Johnson polls, while other polls were released by Don Anderson and Ian Boxill, who is well known to us in Barbados through his association with the University of the West Indies’ (UWI) Cave Hill Associates Polling Organization (CHAPO).  
The situation is somewhat confusing since Bill Johnson appears to have indicated that the People’s National Party (PNP) had a lead of two percentage points on the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) with a favourable momentum. However, his client (The Gleaner) seems to have suggested that the JLP would win a majority of seats. In fairness, Professor Boxill appears to have indicated that the election was too close to call, while Don Anderson called it “correctly” for the PNP.
The public perception regionally appears to have been that there was some distance between two of the three pollsters’ opinions and the outcome of the election and for this there has been some amount of criticism.
The reality is, however, that the election in Jamaica was actually quite close and if two of the pollsters relied on the traditional tools employed in places like Jamaica it is not surprising that their conclusions could easily have been seen as misleading.  
The appended chart presents the election outcome diagrammatically and demonstrates that the PNP’s popular support stands at 53 per cent which is a four per cent improvement over the previous election and these types of margins are somewhat challenging to predict since most polls factor in a +/-5 per cent margin of error and the margin of victory is within that range.  
Such challenges are the reality of polling in this contemporary Caribbean political environment and CADRES continues to recommend the “Swing Analysis” tool which has unfortunately not endeared itself to my colleagues from the north that are, ironically, often believed to know better than myself about this business.
Polls aside, the recent Jamaica election tells a story of a PNP that narrowly won, with an inflated seat count compared to their popular support. This means that Prime Minister Simpson Miller has been handed the keys to the government, but her victory can to some extent be considered “tentative” since her government can fall victim to the three per cent swing needed to remove her just as easily as it captured office in December.  
This reality is part of an interesting trend across the region where superficially strong governments have been elected in places such as Barbados, St Lucia, Grenada and Antigua and in all cases these can fall victim to an electoral shift of less than five percentage points, which is easily achievable in most Caribbean contexts.
The future for the JLP is also a matter for some concern since the appended chart also demonstrates that the JLP has now lost the three per cent
that it captured from the PNP in 2007, while the PNP has recaptured the two per cent it lost in 2007 and added a further two per cent from persons who previously voted for a third party or independent candidate. This observation is interesting since the bulk of Jamaica’s non-PNP/JLP population would have been affiliated with a Golding-led National Democratic Movement (NDM) which was itself a JLP faction.  
It would essentially appear as though the PNP is now genuinely growing its support and capturing new voters.
Finally, something needs to be said about the gay issue and its potential impact on voting behaviour since this emerged as a discussion topic in the election and Simpson Miller took a stance that could be defined as liberal in the Jamaican context.  
Commentators argued that this was unwise since Jamaica is considered the most homophobic place on this earth and people genuinely believe that a leader who appears pro-gay could never be elected there.  
This result has challenged such thinking and some have even speculated that she was elected by a “gay lobby” of sorts. This author is, however, not convinced since these arguments presume that this issue holds an importance in the minds of Caribbean people that my research suggests it does not.  
Certainly people in Jamaica hold strong views on the issue, but the countervailing factor when a Jamaican votes is their support for party which is often rooted in history and nurtured three per cent increase in support for the PNP is certainly not entirely on account of Simpson Miller’s pro-gay stance, but it could easily be one of the contributing factors.
Conversely, the large quantity of JLP supporters who stayed home and would have accounted (largely) for the low turnout were not exclusively motivated by the JLP’s anti-gay stance, but it could have been a contributing factor.  
Essentially, therefore, this is perhaps not an issue that can win you an election, but it can clearly help you to lose one.