Disclaimer: I have never met, personally interacted with or otherwise been affiliated with anyone named or mentioned in this post. I know them only through the media. All photos, unless otherwise stated, are the property of the candidate depicted.
It is something that young Jamaicans are told to be ashamed of, but today I admit that for most of my existence, I have been indifferent to the results of our elections. I have strongly regarded all politicians as evil, and wouldn’t dare choose even the lesser of them. This year I feel differently. It might be the fact that I have spent most of the time between elections as an outside observer from Uruguay which had a president who was described as the poorest in the world, and from my adopted home in the United States, where politicians vying for a chance to contest the presidency are currently being scrutinized from all angles.
My already unusual interest in the Jamaican elections was heightened on the 11th of February, a mere two weeks before the upcoming elections, when I read that the PNP had, in an effort to ensure the integrity of the electoral process, opted out of the debates. They did so pending their demand for a change in format be met by the Debates Commission and that the leader of the opposing JLP, Hon. Andrew Holness, fulfill their requirements of detailing his finances, specifically how he afforded his house, as well as apologize for declaring murders at his recent campaign as “acts of terror”. This demand was followed by a, now recanted, article that said the police were investigating Mr. Holness and the circulation of messages claiming his wife, Juliet, was related to a convicted money launderer, this invited a statement from Mrs. Holness’ parents in an effort to protect their reputation.
The PNP, a party seemingly confident that their leadership has placed Jamaica in a favorable position with international experts – clearly dismissive of what Jamaicans think, is denying the only people to whom they have constitutional responsibility our right to dialogue with them in the form of a debate.
The pre-election mood, consequently, shifted from an argument surrounding the general issues of education, crime, the economy and healthcare to a yet to be substantiated battle over the cost of the opposition leader’s ‘castle’. The National Integrity Commission on Monday encouraged Holness to answer the PNP’s questions, while noting that the commission’s reports for the years 2010 to 2014 were in the custody of the Office of the Prime Minister, who had failed to table them in parliament before the current recess. I am still unsure of the content of these reports as they have never been made public but the PNP, after making their demands, admitted that the issue could have been brought to parliament but it was somehow suddenly more urgent than it was the week before when parliament was still in session.
Mr. Holness’ Response
In a disclosure unprecedented among the political class, Mr. Holness admitted to having a trust/company set up in St. Lucia for the purpose of estate planning and tax avoidance. On that same day, an officer of the PNP also came forward to say members of his party had similar companies in offshore tax havens1 . I am disappointed in both the ruling party and the opposition for their gall in normalizing the fact that they are shielding themselves from a system of taxation created by them, while dishing out austerity measures and ‘bitter medicine’ to the populace.
The other aspects of Holness’ statement2, though, apart from the high dollar figures, illustrated him as having the same hopes and aspirations as the Jamaican everyman. I saw myself in the Mr. Holness who was able to enter the political class from relatively humble beginnings – hailing from a less-than-glamorous community of our old capital, Spanish Town. Mr. Holness showed me, by revealing that he formed a company in which his boys are also stakeholders – naming it after them both, that he is a man who thinks of his children at every step of the way. He is doing his best to ensure their future is bright regardless of his past, just like my mother had done for me, despite the failure of my father. The everyday Jamaican parent may not have access to the resources that Mr. Holness’ family does, but they can relate to wanting the best for their children.
Mr. Holness, very ironically, succeeded in portraying himself as a frugal man with big dreams and the industriousness to achieve them. The PNP’s suspicions were that the value of his home was close to $200 million, yet he declared to have built it with only $52 million. He has a mortgage, like most Jamaican homeowners, he ‘trusted’ materials using suppliers’ credit and provided some of the funds from (I assume) hard-earned savings. He declared that he is still building block by block, little by little even after four years; this is a clear indication that he might have cash flow problems like many Jamaicans who have also had to slow or halt construction of their homes.
What might also have cemented Holness’ place among the masses was the response of a certain woman known to be of a privileged background who has two sisters (PNP) in the race for parliamentary positions. She implied that Holness was ungrateful in ‘running against’ the family that helped to build his castle (his lawyer stated that he had invested with a company in which relatives of the said privileged woman are principals). There was heavy backlash on Facebook, one commenter likening Andrew Holness to the late upstart George Siebel who built Devon House. The company has since distanced itself from her remarks but the damage to both the institution’s reputation and the PNP’s perception is indelible.
Mr. Holness’ attorney sent a letter to Peter Phillips who spearheaded the questioning. Instead of demanding monetary damages as his counterpart had done3, in a show of philanthropy4, Andrew requested that an agreed sum be donated to a children’s charity of his choosing, reinforcing his love for Jamaica’s youth. The PNP’s smear campaign had, by now, clearly backfired.
Seven days later – just a week before we are scheduled to head to the polls, the PNP has finally declared that the debates are an impossibility, citing unsatisfactory responses and a lack of apology from Mr. Holness.
However entertaining this debacle might have been, we cannot afford for a situation of pure chicanery to dominate another election. Jamaica deserves stringent rules and timelines for electoral events: fixed election dates, mandatory debates with fixed dates and the allowance of empty chairs, pre-scheduled campaign events, deadlines for the release of manifestos and penalties for politicians who seek to resolve their conflicts in the media, overlooking the important mediatory role of the Political Ombudsman.
Even more importantly, comprehensive financial reports and background checks on all sitting members of state and local government should be made available through the Access to Information Act. A public declaration like the one Andrew was forced to make on Monday should only be necessary in the case of a suspected discrepancy in what had been submitted to the Integrity Commission. If the media, ergo the people, have access to these documents we have the opportunity to research and the freedom to create our own concerns and are not left to rely on politicians soundbites and their lawyers’ ultimatums to form the basis of our ‘news’ reports.
Regrettably, this election will not be decided by how convinced the people are of one party’s capability and the other’s lack thereof. There has been very little room for comparison of the parties’ plans to lead the country forward. The committed party supporters will vote as they always have and the independent voters will decide whether Andrew Holness’ presence and recent openness is more attractive and compelling than Portia Simpson-Miller’s sustained absence is repugnant. Thursday, February 25 will determine whether the endearing, poor-loving and Obama-kissing Prime Minister still has her charm or whether the Clarks-wearing, cow skin soup-drinking Opposition leader has succeeded in painting himself as Jamaica’s everyman.
- I am not sure why they disclosed this, Andrew could have remained the only bad guy but they did the JLP a favor here [↩]
- along with several videotaped responses by himself and a radio interview with his lawyer [↩]
- yes, there are a lot of letters floating around [↩]
- or maybe just a “poor and boasy” move [↩]