By Alexander Britell
Jamaica’s elections are quickly heating up, and one of those monitoring the political developments closely is University of the West Indies Professor Ian Boxill, who is the Carlton Alexander Chair in Management Studies. Dr Boxill is also a veteran pollster, having surveyed the political and electoral attitudes of Jamaicans for some time now through his company, Ian Boxill and Associates. To learn more about how the campaign is shaping up ahead of the Dec. 29 vote, CJ Politics talked to Dr Boxill about the major issues in the campaign, the impact of the Manatt-Dudus affair for voters and what can be gleaned from the results of recent polling.
What are the biggest issues in this election?
Well the major issue is clearly the impending IMF agreement, which the government will have to negotiate in the coming year, whichever party wins the election. So that’s the main thing, because the global economic crisis and how that has impacted on the country, is clearly the most important factor. In our polls, voters are mainly concerned with economic issues, largely unemployment, because it is vey high. So unemployment is the number one topic, with the IMF agreement. A concomitant issue is having to deal with the issue of corruption – and that has to do with the use of public funds and the misuse of public funds. There have been a few incidents recently which have caused the government to remove one of its ministers, or remove the project form one of its ministers, because of the accusations of corruption. I would think those are the two main issues, of the economic handling of the finances of the country, and the issues of corruption.
How much has the style of campaigning changed in Jamaica?
Well, not much has changed. What has clearly happened is we have a very short period of campaigning, so in a sense this can reduce any tensions that might have been the case in the past, to create things like political violence. We haven’t had many cases of that, because political violence related to campaigning has been reduced significantly over the years. That’s not a major issue – that concerns minor things. But there are no major issues – the campaign is the usual, in the media, in the print media and also on television, it’s the usual. So there’s not been much of a change of what has been done in terms of the campaigning.
How much has the use of social media increased in Jamaican politics?
Among the youth, we do see a quite a bit of use of social media, and that actually started in the last election in 2007, where the JLP in particular utilized this medium very effectively to communicate to the youth vote, and to appeal for change. The reality is that most of the internet penetration is low in Jamaica, and we don’t have a significant proportion of, say, the older population using social media. But certainly among the younger people, university students, young professionals who tend to use, it’s important for those groups. But generally speaking, for the majority, social media is still not a deciding point. But I would agree that it has played an increasingly and more important role in the campaign from both parties.
You’ve done a number of surveys regarding the confidence Jamaicans have in the country’s political institutions. Have their attitudes changed?
Well, in our surveys, what we have found repeatedly is that institutions such as political institutions, have not been very positively rated by the public at large. There is a strong feeling that the political system needs to be cleaned up. Interestingly, in 2007, the previous Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, came to power by promising that he would bring about change, but the Dudus-Manatt case has tended to tarnish his handling of the government. As a result, people simply felt that the promise was not delivered on, and consequently, his popularity fell significantly in the polls. This is why we have a new leader in Andrew Holness, who again is promising to deal with corruption and to bring about clean government. So he has the appeal on two grounds – one, generational change reflected in his youth, and secondly, he is clean, he has never been in the forefront of these corruption charges, and he believes that this is the most important factor, both in terms of creating a new politics but also in terms of developing the economy to tackle the corruption factor. But in terms of perception of political institutions, over the years, we have not seen any positive increase. They continue to be really negative in the eyes of the public.
I still think that at the back of some people’s minds, [Manatt] is a factor.”
How much does the Manatt-Dudus affair mean to voters?
It’s not at this point a critical factor, but it has taken a toll on the incumbent party in the sense that the polls were done, including the one I did subsequent to the inquiry, indicated that the government was held in lower esteem by many people in the country, and also that Prime Minister Golding had lost popularity. So it did take a toll. Since he has stepped down as Prime Minister, it has removed some of the sting, and from the ability of the opposition to make it matter. But I still think that at the back of some people’s minds, it is a factor – not as critical as it was, and perhaps, if we had the election while [Golding] was still there, it would matter more – but since he stepped down it has mattered less. But it is still a factor lurking out there which I’m sure the opposition will play on in terms of the politics.
How do you see the race unfolding?
So far, it’s a very close race. In the earlier polls, they showed the PNP were significantly ahead, and they had widened their lead after the Manatt case. At least two of the polls indicated that, including mine, that subsequent to the ascension to power of Mr Holness, he has sort of closed the gap, and a lot of the recent polls show a very tight race, with either party ahead within the margin of error. The last set of polls show a statistical dead heat. Other polls are being conducted as we speak, and so in the coming week, we will know whether or not things have changed since the campaign started. So far, it indicates a very close race, and so far too close to call. On Saturday, we had our first debate, the youth debate, and that might have had some impact. We don’t know as yet, and there are other debates coming this week, and we will see how those play out in voters’ decisions. I can say without the benefit of more recent polling that previous polls indicated a very tight race between the two parties.