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The Open Secret of Vote Buying

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In the heat of the campaign for the Portland Eastern seat left vacant by the death of Dr. Lynvale Bloomfield earlier this year, allegations and denials of vote buying flew.

Vote Buying Allegations in East Portland


The opposition People’s National Party (PNP) accused the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) of using taxpayers’ money on de-bushing and other projects in the Constituency. According to the PNP General Secretary, Julian Robinson, “scores of JLP supporters in green t-shirts” de-bushed the main road, leading to Port Antonio.

As the PNP saw it, this flurry of activity is a blatant attempt by the JLP to influence the outcome of the April 4, 2019 By-Elections.

No Bollo Work!

Of course, the JLP quickly denied the accusation. It charged that the PNP was making misleading statements. The party insisted that these infrastructure and de-bushing projects were in the pipeline long before the Prime Minister’s announcement of the By-Election. The JLP also denied the PNP’s complaint made to the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman about the bridge it installed in East Portland.

According to the Public Relations Chairman of the JLP, Matthew Samuda, the Government of Jamaica is carrying out infrastructure work, drain cleaning, and de-bushing projects in several constituencies.  The JLP also rejected the implied connection between the government’s bridge building project in East Portland and vote buying.  So,  vote buying is not happening in Eastern Portland. No bollo work is being issued. At least, that is the JLP’s story and they are sticking to it.

Carnival of Spending!

Yet, Jamaicans cannot overlook the coincidence of what the PNP called the “carnival of spending” on several projects and infrastructure works in East Portland. In a bid to avoid the appearance of vote buying in the East Portland By-Election, Prime Minister Andrew Holness ordered the halt of payments from the Constituency Development Fund (CDF). Regardless of this move, the allegations of vote buying persist.

According to Julian Robinson,

“This (vote buying) has become the normal pattern of behaviour for the JLP government, culminating in a spending spree of $1 billion during the recent South East St Mary by-election.”

However, the JLP fired back, accusing the PNP of hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, the Electoral Office of Jamaica (ECJ) called for the political parties to stop using resources to influence the by-election.

$10,000 for the ‘X’

Not surprisingly, not all Jamaicans will hesitate to sell their votes if given the chance. Although the buying and selling of votes are illegal under the Representation of the People Act, approximately 13 percent of Jamaicans surveyed ahead of the 2016 General Elections were willing to sell their vote. A Gleaner-Bill Johnson Poll done at the time found that votes could go for between  $500 and as high as $10,000. Furthermore, the poll found that some Jamaicans are willing to sell their votes, regardless of the penalty of $80,000 and a ban on voting or holding political office for the breach.

Anthropologist Dr. Herbert Gayle, in a 2016 study also found that 48 percent of eligible voters plan not to vote. However, 10 percent of this group said they would sell their votes if given the opportunity. It also does not matter which of the two main political parties buys the vote. Even die-hard party supporters were willing to accept incentives not to vote at all.

Bribery not new

Truth is, vote buying is not a new problem in Jamaican politics. One might even venture as far as to say, as Garfield Higgins in a recent article did, that “Bribery and variant forms of it have been part of the electoral landscape in Jamaica for decades.”

How bad is the problem, really?

Anecdotally, bribery reared its ugly head from the very first general elections, in 1944. As the stories went, politicians distributed salt fish and counter flour to voters to win their votes during that election. Every election since then, whether general or local, some form of bribery prevailed.

As bribery, vote buying, or vote holding became widespread, the scale of the problem grew. Alarmingly, reports emerged of money in envelopes changing hands during political rallies. Allegedly, party activists were also paying voters not to vote in some constituencies.

The Root of The Vote Selling Problem

One suggestion that may explain the ease with which votes can be bought and sold is what Garfield Higgins called, “mass disaffection” of the Jamaican population. Mass disaffection is more noticeable among the young who are not eager to participate in the political process. This attitude among persons of voting age may explain the drop in the last 25 years in the number of voters who cast their ballots.

The garrison, that is, an enclave where a single party (whether JLP or PNP) dominates its influence over voter behaviour, is also fertile ground for “vote buying” of another form. In garrisons, residents benefit from various cash and in-kind incentives to maintain loyalty. Any betrayal whether direct or indirect is met with swift and often brutal consequences.

That said, Jamaica has managed over the past elections to conduct the votes without the kinds of violent and disruptive incidents that dominated the elections of the past. Who could forget the bloody 1980 General Elections?

Did Vote Buying Feature in East Portland?

Apparently, direct vote buying was not a striking feature of on the ground happenings during the East Portland By-Elections.

Observations by the corruption watchdog National Integrity Action (NIA) and the Citizens Action for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE) were that direct vote buying is not the problem in this event. The problem is the indirect distribution of funds for projects and activities inside the constituency.

Then again, an examination of the voting history in Eastern Portland shows a longstanding tradition of high voter turnout bred by a natural inclination to vote.

So, the handout of money in envelopes was not what swung the voters in East Portland.

It was quite evident that JLP’s candidate Ann Marie Vaz resonated well with the voters in that constituency. Not only was she well liked across the political divide, but she was also accessible. It helps that she lives in East Portland. Unlike the PNP candidate Damion Crawford, who was parachuted in to contest the seat.

The Labour Party also conducted a strategically superior campaign that stayed on the message of prosperity and hope. East Portlanders appreciate the freshness of that message and place much premium on the JLP’s ability to fulfill its promises.

So, will there be an election in Jamaica that is untainted by vote buying? Probably not.



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