General elections in Jamaica will take place on February 25 — just over a week away — but the online conversation and rhetoric surrounding the polls has soared, fuelled by a statement from the ruling People's National Party (PNP) that it would not participate in planned televised political debates with the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). That is, unless JLP leader Andrew Holness answered a series of questions regarding the source of funds for the construction of his home in an upscale Kingston neighborhood.
The PNP also sought an apology from Holness for describing a violent incident at a JLP rally as “an act of terror.” While the opposition leader has now responded in a two-page statement first shared on Twitter, his answers were not enough to satisfy the PNP, and the situation remains a political stalemate.
Immediate tweets from civil society and the private sector ranged from expressing surprise and bafflement to voicing disapproval about the ruling party's refusal to participate. Several influential groups, including The Press Association of Jamaica, National Integrity Action and The Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica expressed their concern. Many suggested that if debates did not take place, the Jamaican electorate would be less well informed and the country's democracy the poorer for it. According to media surveys, three debates preceding the previous elections in 2011 had reasonably good viewership and influenced the vote of some 20% of those surveyed.
Economics professor at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona Campus, Dr. Damien King, asserted:
To the PNP, who won't debate unless Andrew declares finances: A public debate is not a favour to the opposition; it's a service to the ppl.
— Damien King (@DamienWKing) February 13, 2016
Influential talk show host Cliff Hughes added:
#HoldTheDebates is an imperative. Our young n fledgling democracy must be nurtured n enriched. The PNP is wrong not to debate.
— Cliff Hughes (@cliffnationwide) February 13, 2016
‘Like a child’s game being played’
As the Twitter discussion heated up, UWI's student leadership program conducted a Twitter chat with the hashtag #HoldTheDebate.
Local bloggers have also expressed their views. Satirical blog The Ungrateful Soup, observing the situation comically, referred to the prime minister's past remarks about the role religious guidance plays in her decision-making:
Explaining that she, like the rest of us, would love to get the national debates underway, Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller has revealed that God, ‘who continues to procrastinate’, has yet to touch her with the answers she will be required to provide so that those debates can actually happen.
‘He hasn’t even given me the questions yet,’ said the frustrated Prime Minister, apologizing to the country on behalf of her Lord, Saviour, Economics Advisor and Political Strategist for His tardiness once again. ‘A national debate is a critical facet of our democratic system. You hear that God? A critical facet!’
Young blogger Jay Brown, an “ordinary Jamaican who is simply looking at ways to make us once again the Jewel of the Caribbean”, questioned the value of political debates for either party, who would do better to engage in grassroots activities than to seek to persuade those on social media:
Why therefore would the PNP who are only marginally ahead want to engage in a debate on national television that is hardly likely to generate any additional potential voters regardless of the outcome.
A better strategy for the PNP is therefore to go after the grass root folks, the ray ray politics folks, those who care not about fiscal deficit, debt/gdp ratio, or surplus. These people want to see their leader running and jumping and prancing on stage with music blaring, cussing out the opposition while lighting up a big head while gulping down a Guinness.
The people who choose to exercise their votes on election day are those who are inclined to attend mass meetings and not those who listen to debates from the comfort of their living rooms.
I can guarantee you that 90% of those who live on social media are not even on the voters list and even if they are there, they will NOT vote, so why waste time talking to those folks.
The JLP has better use the next few days to get on the road and try to appeal to those who are the ‘real’ voters because on the day of the election, its not what happens on Twitter or periscope or facebook that counts, its how many X’s are beside the bell and are in the ballot boxes.
Retired economist and regular commentator and blogger Dennis G. Jones saw the need for a debate, concluding that debates have value, especially for an undecided voter such as himself:
You see, people like me want to politicians contend in public against each other, and the leaders, especially. I felt it was like a child’s game being played when I read the statement where, no matter what you said, there was a reason to not do something…It’s so like the child who wants to play outside and not do homework.
Meanwhile, local LGBT rights group J-FLAG has launched an online petition urging politicians to focus on human rights:
— J-FLAG (@equality_JA) February 17, 2016
The debate over the debates
Amidst competing lawsuits and accusations flying between the two political parties, civil society organizations are anxious for key issues to be addressed by politicians vying for office. The issue of the national debate has led to a wider discussion on transparency and accountability in government.
An informal Twitter poll conducted by anti-corruption advisor Greg Christie asked the following question: Who, in the Jamaica Parliament, should take the lead in publicly disclosing their assets, income, liabilities? 93% of the 220 Twitter users who voted said that the prime minister should be the first to do so. According to the Parliament (Integrity of Members) Act, lawmakers are required to declare their assets and liabilities to an integrity commission, but the commission's reports haven't been tabled in Parliament since 2009.
Since the Jamaica Debates Commission, which has administered televised debates in three past elections, is not permitted to hold an “empty chair” debate with only one party participating, this tweeted photograph from Opposition Leader Andrew Holness (in green) proved meaningless, if amusing:
— Andrew Holness (@AndrewHolnessJM) February 13, 2016
As the discussion intensified, high-profile entrepreneur Yaneek Page observed on Twitter:
This mud slinging re who owns what, where & how. Forget ‘badmind’. Real issues re corruption/governance/debt/unjust enrichment #JaVotes2016
— #FutureServicesJa (@yaneekpage) February 16, 2016
Some commentators seem resigned to the current situation. Radio talk show host Emily Shields tweeted:
Jamaica's current situation – Bye bye issues. Hello lawsuits #voteja2016
— Emily Shields (@emilymshields) February 16, 2016
Another young man, PNP politician Damion Crawford, tweeted humorously — but with a hint of frustration — about the impasse:
Jamaica's problem is that we make dogs eat hay and horse eat bone
— Damion Crawford, MP. (@DamionCrawford) February 17, 2016
New developments are occurring every few hours, with social media fueling the “debate over the debates”. The hashtag #HoldTheDebates remains current, although the Jamaica Debates Commission is now running out of options with little time remaining.
The current state of play is that with both JLP leader Holness refusing to apologize and PNP campaign manager Peter Phillips refusing to retract his demands, there is the possibility that two debates may still go ahead — but not between the two leaders. Meanwhile, lawyers for both sides are very busy.