Legislative elections were held in Jamaica on December 29, 2011. All 63 seats in Jamaica’s lower house, the House of Representatives, were up for reelection. There were 60 members in the last legislature, redistricting added three seats.
Jamaican politics, like those in the bulk of the English Caribbean, have been dominated by two parties for most of its independence. In fact, the Jamaican party system has changed little on the surface since the late 1930s and early 1940s. There are two parties, which have alternated in power since the first universal suffrage elections in 1944 and Jamaica’s independence in 1962. These are the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP). While its name would indicate that it would be left-leaning, the JLP is actually right-wing, while the PNP is left-wing. Up until the 1970s, there were little ideological differences between the JLP and the PNP, as both had emerged from the native movement for Jamaican independence and especially equal rights. Both parties, especially the JLP, were born with ties to organized labour. Differences were largely based on personality, the JLP being the creation of trade unionist Alexander Bustamante and the PNP the beast of journalist Norman Manley; or based on different strategies, the JLP being moderate yet anti-establishment (though enjoying better relations with the British) and the PNP being more radical and nationalist.
The JLP won the first free elections in 1944 and governed until 1955, when the PNP was elected on a platform of full independence for the West Indies Federation (WIF). Bustamante converted to supporting independence for Jamaica alone, and in 1961 had convinced Manley to hold a referendum on withdrawing from the WIF, in which the government’s campaign for the no was defeated by the JLP’s yes campaign, and followed in 1962 by the JLP’s election. Bustamante resigned in 1967, followed by two JLP non-entities. Manley died in 1969 and his son Michael Manley became leader and subsequently Prime Minister in 1972. It is in this period that the rivalry between the JLP and PNP being very much ideological. Manley, who pursued major social reforms, was very much non-aligned and Third Worldish in his foreign policy, and at home he placed punitive taxes on foreign-owned bauxite mines. Manley’s PNP aligned closely with the non-aligned bloc, Cuba and Africa – in 1972, Manley visited Haile Selassie and in return gained the votes of most Jamaican Rastafarians. On the other hand, Manley’s rival, the JLP’s American-born leader, Edward Seaga, was very pro-American and anti-communist.
The 1970s and 1980s were also peaks of political instability and violence in Jamaica, and the country was lurching on the verge of civil war for most of the period. Starting in the 1976 elections, both parties resorted to gang support, with the emergence of party bosses/gangsters in Kingston’s shantytowns (the “garrisons”) who pooled votes for either the JLP or PNP. In the 1980 elections, in which the PNP was routed, nearly 900 people died. In 1983, the PNP’s boycott of snap elections held in the wake of the American invasion of Granada (which Seaga supported) didn’t help matters much.
Following this explosive situation, things started calming down as Seaga started losing American support and Manley toned down the socialist rhetoric. In the 1989 elections, the PNP was returned to power, and following Manley’s resignation in 1992, followed a very moderate course under the leadership of Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, who won 3 elections. Seaga finally left the reins of the JLP prior to the 2007 elections, which were won by the JLP’s Bruce Golding over the PNP’s new leader (since 2006), Portia Simpson-Miller. Andrew Holness replaced Golding as PM in October 2011, and called this election 9 months ahead of schedule.
Really, both the JLP and PNP are broadly ideologically similar these days except perhaps on foreign policy where the PNP is more pro-Cuban and less pro-American than the JLP. This year, both parties agreed to continue working with the IMF, cut spending and reduce the country’s debt. Golding was elected on some rather populist rhetoric in 2007, but today Simpson-Miller has built herself some kind of an image as a populist representative of the poor. The results were as follows:
PNP 53.32% (+3.7%) winning 41 seats (+13)
JLP 46.56% (-3.7%) winning 22 seats (-10)
The PNP defeated the JLP surprisingly handily, the first time an incumbent government in Jamaica has been defeated when seeking reelection. Economic issues likely played a role in the JLP’s defeat: the country’s debt is huge at 143% of GDP, unemployment is nearly 12% (which is low by Jamaican historical standards) and growth was only 1.5% in 2011 after having been in recession in 2008 through 2010. Simpson-Miller campaigned on a moderate manifesto but on more left-wing rhetoric presenting herself as the champion of the poor.
You can find a map of the results on the right. There seem to be rather few discernible stable patterns in Jamaican voting behaviour, with the JLP and PNP both holding their share of the Kingston garrisons (though the PNP has more) and results in other parishes a bit all over the place. It is hard for me to say where this pattern can be observed the most, but the PNP dominates the Rastafarian vote (in fact, this election saw the first Rastafarian MP) as it has since 1972. The PNP appears slightly stronger in bauxite and aluminium-producing areas, though this is hardly a universal pattern. The JLP pretty clearly dominates in large tourist resorts like Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, though not in the smaller hippie resort of Negril. The JLP is also strong, for obvious reasons, in the more affluent Uptown part of Kingston.