Source: Jamaica Gleaner
Since my return from school in England in 2007, I have research/covered every general election. During this period, three connected characteristics of young voters have fascinated me: growing apathy, growing incidence of vote selling, and an appetite for punishing the People’s National Party (PNP). We shall define a young voter as someone who is under the age of 35. The term ‘youth’ is used to refer to persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years. However, 25 to 34 years are recognised as extended youth.
The Caribbean is a very young space, unlike the North. In many Caribbean states, more than two-thirds of the people are under the age of 35 years. However, very few young people have ever held any prominent position in Caribbean politics. Caribbean politicians have rarely acted in a way to promote youth development or human resource development. While they have been ignoring the youth, social media platforms have been allowing young people to build networks that allow them to express their concerns and to develop a sense of importance. Politicians who have learnt to exploit these platforms have become the friends of youth. Most young people in Jamaica, Belize and Trinidad have expressed greater tolerance for politicians who bother to use their platforms to communicate with them; and they have, concurrently, been very harsh with those who are slow to appreciate their use of social media. Note, though, that the issue is not about the use of social media – it is, rather, about whether politicians pay attention to the youth or their needs, or at least listen to them.
The use of social media to communicate with youth is therefore an indicator and not a cause. To illustrate, seven middle-age Caribbean politicians are often described as young simply because of their consistent involvement with young people. All of them have found millennial ways to communicate continuously with the youth.
The data show that the PNP have found themselves on the ‘bad’ side of the youth. Young people described the relationship with the PNP in the following words:
“Mi have dem up.”
“Mi done wid dem.”
“They have their thing and I have mine. They promote their old people and plan to die there, and I want change and life.”
In recent interviews covering the 2020 elections, I asked young people if they knew how many ‘youngish’ and/or new candidates the PNP and Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) had. Their knowledge on the subject was impressive. They pointed out that the PNP was making a lot of changes, comparable with the JLP. They even commented that the PNP was making space for women in key seats – “not just the ones who are guaranteed to lose”. However, only one-third of the youth interviewed were impressed with the PNP’s late attempt. The majority mocked them, suggesting that it was “desperate times and desperate measures … too little, too late”.
How did the youth and the PNP get into this bad relationship? A person under the age of 35 years is only likely to be aware of general elections from 1989 until now. During this period, the PNP had dominated politics in Jamaica. In Michael Manley’s last election in 1989, the PNP won 75 per cent of the 60 seats. In the next election (1993), under P.J. Patterson, the PNP won 87 per cent of the 60 seats; and in 1997, very little changed as the PNP won 83 per cent (50 of the 60 seats). As the new millennium emerged, the voices of youth became obvious in my classes at the UWI. I left for England in 2000, but communicated with my students, many of whom progressed to postgraduate studies. By 2002 the writing was on the wall. The PNP’s majority had dropped to a mere 57 per cent.
In 2007, I asked Jamaican young people to reflect on how and why they voted in 2002. Many commented that they had voted for P.J. Patterson because they simply could not vote for Edward Seaga; and a significant number said they refused to vote for any of the two. In 2006, I received the exciting news that Jamaica was to have its first female prime minister. Youth and women were in euphoria for about 18 months. In 2007, a year of natural disaster, Bruce Golding offered Jamaicans what seemed like a better option to the PNP’s constant presence. However, the PNP had created such a strong base that the JLP only won by an edge – 53 per cent. When Bruce Golding got waist deep into Manatt waters, Jamaicans were quick to head back down the familiar path of the PNP. Andrew Holness, who succeeded Bruce Golding, was beaten by a ratio of two to one seat.
In 2016, two weeks before the elections, the PNP wheels came off. The arrogance had overflowed like sewage from a carelessly laid manhole downtown. Portia Simpson-Miller had refused to host any debate, and finally told media personnel that losing was not possible. The most aggressive backlash came from educated females under the age of 35 years. The overwhelming majority (85 per cent) either voted against her or did not vote. Only uneducated men over the age of 35 years tried desperately to keep her in power (68 per cent). All the polls and my research had helped to create this irritating confidence that the youth deemed worthy of attack. I had found 30 seats that the PNP could not lose. They were described as ‘clear’ and ‘advantage’ (26), along with four moderate advantage with no history of JLP wins. The 2016 general election was like a freak show to predicters – the PNP got all 30 seats I had predicted, and only one more from the other six moderate advantage seats my team felt they should also win. Incidentally, they lost the one additional seat in a by-election. The JLP had won the election by a single seat through taking all the marginal seats I had struggled to call – and the damage was done by young people, and a lot of their discouraged relatives.
Since Independence, Jamaica has boasted a healthy voter turnout, which peaked at 86 per cent in bloody 1980. In 1983 only 29 per cent of voters turned out, due to the protest against the country’s only one-party election. By 1989, voter turnout was up to 78 per cent. However, this constantly fell until it hit rock bottom at 48 per cent in 2016. In 2016, post election, my research team found something profound – young people had become so powerful in their homes that they helped to keep 13 per cent of the 35-plus years group from going to vote. This was the first time we had come to recognise that if a party lost its youth, it could affect the core of ‘loyalist’. That is what helps to explain the massive decline in voter turnout. Many families explained that their youth kept the issue raw so they could not ignore the lack of change in the PNP.
Since 2007 I have been tracking vote selling. In 2007, only 10 per cent of Jamaicans reported that they had planned to sell their votes. This increased to 16 per cent in 2011 and 21 per cent in 2016. There are three categorical variables that influence vote selling: economics, apathy and age. However, for you to understand this issue you will need to see the factors as connected. In ranked order, Jamaicans who expressed that both parties were similarly bad were more than twice likely to sell their votes than traditional voters; followed by the poor, who were twice more likely to do so than the upper-middle-income group; and those under 35 years of age were 1.7 times more likely than those over 35 years. When combined, a poor, young person who did not think any of the two parties tried to help young people were four times more likely to sell his or her vote than a mature, wealthy, traditional voter. When the data for the categorical variables were tested for multicollinearity (overlaps), it became clear that over two-thirds of the poor and disgruntled were the youth.
Recently, the JLP appointed two post-retirement-age men to lead two important ministries that affect youth (Mike Henry, 85 years old, to the Ministry of Labour and Social Security; and Karl Samuda, 78 years old, to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information). Many mature Jamaicans ignored it, but the youth around me immediately started quarrelling that the JLP is heading down the same path as the PNP in their relationship with them. In 120 recent interviews with young people 51 (43 per cent) listed this as a problem they have with the JLP. Concurrently, 62 (52 per cent) made it clear that the PNP should not rely on them to rescue them in this upcoming election. Consequently, 29 (24 per cent) of the youth expressed with certainty that they will sell their vote to the higher bidder in the upcoming election – “as they are all the same”. The youth who described the two parties as equally bad also stressed the string of scandals under successive leadership – from ‘Trafigura’ through ‘Manatt’ to the billions of oil losses at Petrojam.
The information gathered from these young people in the qualitative studies suggest that successive governments continue to ignore the core issues of the youth – economics, education, justice and safety – at their peril. As this election approaches, we wonder what the turnout will be. We can assume that it will be shaped by high youth apathy and COVID-19 threat to the aged ‘loyalists’, who normally get up at 5 a.m. to get ready to go and vote. A quarter of all persons over age 65 have already expressed that they will have to figure out if voting is worth the risk to their health. Many younger persons have explicitly told our team that they are not going to take their high-risk elders to vote.
How will the political leaders treat Jamaican youth after this wimpy but important election? Which set of old men will next pick on the youth to harass and underserve?
Herbert Gayle is a social anthropologist and lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Psychology and Social Work at The University of the West Indies.
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