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Jamaica heads to the polls today as COVID-19 strengthens

By Ricky Browne

Jamaica goes to the polls today with several safety protocols in place as the country experiences an increase in the amount of COVID-19 infections.

Some 30,000 people are in quarantine, a significant proportion of the population of about 2.8 million people. But they, and others who are known to have the virus, are being allowed to leave their homes to vote in the general election. All voters must wear masks, however, and infected voters can only vote after 5.00 pm.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness

The ruling Jamaica Labour Party led by Prime Minister Andrew Holness is expected to win the election convincingly according to polls and the general concencus.

With 63 seats in parliament, it is likely that the JLP could win as many as 41 seats with the opposition Peoples National Party picking up the remaining 22 seats.

The result could have been even greater for the JLP were it not for the advantage that the PNP holds in its number of safe ‘garrison’ seats. The PNP is believed to have about 15 of these seats compared to the JLP’s nine.

Should the JLP win 41 seats, the result it would be a mini-landslide for the JLP, their largest victory since winning every seat in the uncontested 1983 election.

A strong win also strengthen the government’s hand in dealing with the coronavirus crisis as well as the slow moving economy — now in steep decline. Since winning the last election in 2016 the JLP had an extremely thin margin, and had to work in collaboration with the opposition much of the time in order to get anything done.

But a big victory would free their hands allowing them to push more legislation through the parliament, without having to worry about one or two of its MPs crossing the floor.

The economy has hardly grown over the last 4.5 years and crime has remained high, despite strong security measures including wide States of Emergency in particularly crime-prone areas. On the plus side poverty declined, taxes were reduced and employment reached historic peaks. But things took a turn for the worse when COVID-19 hit. The country has been able to successfully keep the death rate low with only about 20 known deaths so far — good by international standards — but like many other countries it has seen its economy go into free fall.

Opposition leader Peter Phillips

Despite the crisis, the opposition PNP has had little traction as the party itself is in disarray. A leadership battle a few months ago saw party leader and former Minister of Finance Peter Phillips hold onto power, but created a split party. When it was discovered later that Phillips had stage 3 cancer it weakened the party further, though in a debate with the Prime Minister he said he was now cancer free.

A strong victory by the JLP will bring in a generational change, as the party will be able to sideline more of its octogenarian and septuagenarian MPs of which there are more than a few. Holness is in his 40s and is likely to give greater power to some of his younger MPs, bringing greater vibrancy to the government.

PNP politican Lisa Hanna

It may also result in a generational change in the PNP, as there will likely be a greater push by a younger politician to unseat Peter Phillips, himself in his 70s. That move may come from Peter Bunting who failed in his recent attempt to do so. But given that Bunting may be blamed by some in the party for the upcoming loss, a younger compromise candidate may come to the fore. One potential person could be Lisa Hanna, a former Miss World, though many in the party do not think that she has strong enough credentials to win that position.

Jamaica is not be the first Caribbean country to have a general election under the pandemic, as Trinidad and Tobago held its general election last month and the Dominican Republic even earlier.

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