Jamaica’s recent general elections saw an unexpected change in leadership, as the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) secured a close victory with 32 parliament seats against the incumbent People’s National Party (PNP).
Polls and pundits had put the PNP in a slight lead, mostly due to the government’s relative success in stabilizing Jamaica’s economy on the global stage, passing tests set by international monetary agencies like the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But the macro-economic success may have not proved enough for the day-to-day needs of voters. Clearly, the JLP proved convincing in its message of personal progress through its straightforward 10-point economic plan, tapping into this dissatisfaction with promises of income tax breaks and accessible education. These promises ring particularly sweet following years of the PNP’s austerity policies under the IMF agreement.
This election shows that once again, it’s the people’s votes that matter. Regardless of the profiles and strengths of political candidates, it’s the people who matter, who must be convinced and who, in a democracy, make the ultimate decision about who will govern them. They will support leaders who offer pragmatic and tangible solutions that can be made visible in their own lives. Progress must be measured beyond stock growth.
Jamaicans have grown impatient with waiting for the government to provide viable pathways to jobs, higher wages, lower prices, affordable housing, health and education. To the majority of the people, news of the reduction in the national debt, buoyance in the stock market, and successful IMF tests fail to resonate in comparison to their personal financial needs,
Now, the onus is on incoming Prime Minister Andrew Holness and his government to make good their promises. And, with so many challenges, it is a lot to live up to. In many ways, the PNP could perceive their recent defeat as a blessing in disguise. As a local observer commented following the PNP’s loss, “The PNP may be one of the luckiest political parties worldwide, as people’s expectations are extremely high and they want immediate results.”
One of the reasons Simpson Miller called the elections almost a year before they were constitutionally due was her government had another austere budget to present to parliament in the next few months. This wouldn’t be a budget offering Jamaicans the personal financial breaks they sought, but one aimed to continue meeting the stringent economic targets set by the IMF. Possibly, this budget wouldn’t be the sort that would entice voters heading to the polls after April.
However, the JLP correctly picked up on what the people needed, and made its 10 promises that the majority of the voters found more appealing than the PNP’s proposal of steady economic development.
One of the new government’s immediate task is to present the 2016 budget. Will this budget include the JLP’s promises to improve minimum wage, provide more job opportunities, and reform Jamaica’s income-tax policy to ease the burden on those earning under J$1.5 million? For the JLP to keeps its promises, the government may be forced to compromise on its current agreement with the IMF. These promises are the kind the IMF insisted the outgoing government restrict. Will the JLP be able to renegotiate a better deal with the IMF? This is hardly likely, as the IMF has proven resistant to social programs. Or will the new government want to break with the IMF agreement and embark on its own program to keep its promises to Jamaicans? This too is unlikely. The IMF’s assessment of a country’s economy is basically that country’s credit rating, opening access to funding from other agencies and countries.
Under this scenario, it seems the JLP has inherited a major predicament. The Jamaican Diaspora will anxiously watch how Holness deals with this predicament, especially with a one-seat majority. His party has been elected to serve the people, not the IMF, but his government will need the IMF.
The new Holness-led government faces the Herculean task of keeping Jamaica’s national debt intact, while satisfying the financial needs of its people. This is a task that began with the Michael Manley administration in the 1970s. Since then, successive administrations have failed in accomplishing this goal. While Jamaica’s population has grown, these administrations were unable to find sufficient resources to satisfy the population’s financial demands. Jamaicans now expect the new Holness administration will satisfy their financial needs sooner than later. People’s expectations are high, and they are restless.