WORLD

Polling in paradise

Jamaica tries to ward off election violence

JOHN BIERMAN February 6 1989
WORLD

Polling in paradise

Jamaica tries to ward off election violence

JOHN BIERMAN February 6 1989

Polling in paradise

Jamaica tries to ward off election violence

JAMAICA

In a $6-million advertising blitz over the past few weeks, Jamaica has been assuring sun-starved North Americans that, despite the devastation caused by last September’s hurricane Gilbert, the island is very much open for tourism. Television commercials and fullcolor newspaper pullouts—featuring island belles, golden sand and sun-dappled water—

urge winter holiday-goers to “Come back to Jamaica.” But that seductive advertising campaign also carries a lessobvious political message: Jamaica, it implies, is not only welcoming but safe. The island is in the throes of a general election campaign—and when Jamaicans went to the polls eight years ago, between 500 and 700 people died in election violence.

A repetition of that carnage before the Feb. 9 election appeared unlikely. Prime Minister Edward Seaga’s Jamaica Labour Party OLP) and opposition leader Michael Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP)—which holds a 13-point lead in the latest polls—signed an accord last year renouncing violence.

And, last week, the two leaders met to reaffirm that agreement. Said Seaga to Manley: “You and I can make this work, and Jamaica expects us to make it work.”

Responded Manley: “Eddie, you and I will make it work.” That friendly exchange followed a series of relatively minor clashes in which one man was shot dead and several were injured, and clearly both leaders saw an urgent need to prevent an escalation. As Portia Simpson, a firebrand vice-chairman of the left-wing PNP, told a recent rally in the capital, Kingston, “I’m not afraid of any man or woman, but I don’t want to relive the horrors of 1980.”

At that time, the conservative JLP swept to power amid a hail of gunfire from both sides, winning 51 seats in the 60-seat House of Representatives. Eight years of rule by Manley had tightened state control over the economy and forged close ties with Communist Cuba, but Seaga quickly cut relations with Fidel Castro and became the first foreign head of government to call on the newly inaugurated Ronald Reagan at the White House. In addition,

he returned a number of nationalized industries to private ownership, slashed social programs and further reduced government spending by firing about 7,000 civil servants.

It was not long before the impact of those measures, along with Seaga’s impersonal style, eroded his popularity. At the same time, the charismatic Manley began to rise in the opinion

polls until the generally popular U.S. invasion of Grenada in October, 1983, swung opinion back toward Seaga. Seizing the opportunity, Seaga called a snap election before new voters lists could be prepared. The PNP boycotted the elections and the JLP captured all 60 seats.

Now, the outlook is very different. The PNP is campaigning vigorously and, according to pollster Carl Stone, Seaga may win as few as a dozen seats. Another major difference is the narrowing of the ideological gap between the parties. Manley has moved significantly toward the centre, abandoning his old nationalization policies, while Seaga is shifting in the opposite direction, promising to launch sweeping social programs. “My impression,” said Headley Brown, Jamaica’s Central Bank governor, “is that there is no difference between [Manley’s] macroeconomic policies and those that are already in place.” Said Anthony Barnes, presi-

dent of the Jamaica Manufacturers’ Association: “In business, there is a feeling that it ought not to matter who gets in.”

Despite the parties’ slender ideological differences and their peace agreement, the potential for violence remains high. The high toll of death and injury in 1980 was largely caused when supporters of the rival parties in adjoining urban constituencies raked each other’s streets with automatic-rifle fire. Party loyalties in the teeming slums of Kingston, say many observers, remain as intense as ever—and the zealots still have their guns.

Those factors are causing concern among many businessmen in the private sector over the timing of the election. Officials of the Jamaican Hotel and Tourist Association had been imploring Seaga to call elections before mid-December when tourists—including about 110,000 annually from Canada—begin

arriving. The Jamaica Tourist Board was then flying in 2,500 retail travel agents from North America and Europe to show how well—and how quickly—the island had used an estimated $730 million in emergency foreign aid to recover from the effects of hurricane Gilbert.

But Seaga clung to office until almost the last moment permitted by the constitution, apparently hoping for a favorable swing in public opinion. That did not happen and, on Jan. 15, he announced the Feb. 9 poll. What seems most significant now is not so much which party wins as whether the campaign can be concluded peacefully. Serious and sustained violence, coinciding with the height of the heavily advertised tourist season, could devastate the island’s economy for years to come.

JOHN BIERMAN

MARK KURLANSKY