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Jamaica Labour Party wins decisive second term in office amidst low voter turnout and COVID-19 fears

Prime minister-elect, Andrew Holness, talks to the Jamaica Gleaner about his party's win in the September 3 general election. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) was returned to government by a landslide. Screenshot taken from the Jamaica Gleaner's YouTube video “#JaVotes2020: Andrew Holness returns as Prime Minister”.

The results of Jamaica's general election, held on September 3, show that the country has “gone green” — but not in terms of environmental awareness. Rather, green is the colour of the incumbent Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which dealt a heavy blow to the opposition People's National Party (PNP) in the midst of a record low voter turnout of approximately 35 per cent.

A major factor in the low participation by electors — which outdid the 2016 elections’ previous low of 47 per cent — appears to have been growing concerns over COVID-19. To give electors ample opportunity to exercise their right to vote, the government lifted quarantine restrictions for several communities and groups, including those who had tested positive for the virus and thousands in home quarantine.

As the number of active COVID-19 cases in Jamaica continues to rise, there had been concerns regarding the timing of the elections. Under the Westminster parliamentary system, the prime minister may announce an election date before polls are constitutionally due. Jamaica's 63-seat parliament was therefore dissolved on August 13, six months ahead of constitutionally scheduled elections, leaving candidates with an unusually short period in which to campaign, as well as — with various COVID-19 restrictions in place — limitations on the ways they could do it.

Although protocols such as the mandatory wearing of masks during voting were put in place, concerns over the arrangements lingered. In the lead up to the election, several well-known figures tested positive for COVID-19, including police commissioner Major General Antony Anderson, political ombudsman Donna Parchment Brown, the general secretary of the opposition PNP, Julian Robinson, and veteran politician DK Duncan.

Duncan’s daughter, a first-time candidate for the PNP in the constituency of downtown Kingston, had been enthusiastically urging on supporters, but a video that was widely shared on social media showed that neither she nor many of her supporters were wearing masks.

On election day itself, images of voters failing to practise adequate physical distancing sparked concern:

In other communities, however, the procedure was calm and quiet. After he voted, blogger Dennis Jones shared his thoughts about the experience:

So far, I have no concerns: everyone was in masks […]

First impressions are that people are not voting with trepidation and I suspect that as word spreads that health controls are really being well executed, people will decide that it’s not such a big risk to go to vote.

Election protocols stipulate that special provisions should be made for senior citizens to vote ahead of others, but in general, people over 70 years old were advised to stay home. There was some anxiety, then, over a video of a 98-year-old woman who was wheeled into a polling station in Kingston, but did not appear to know where she was:

There were also some technological glitches, as the Electoral Office Of Jamaica’s website was overwhelmed, prompting journalist Cassius Watson to share on Facebook:

The @ecjamaica is failing Jamaica at this critical juncture […] people are being robbed of exercising their right to vote. […] It's clear they were not ready for this rushed election and many frustrated persons are gonna stay home. […]

The atmosphere, however, was generally friendly and tolerant. Jamaican elections are lively events and win or lose, party supporters have fun with their colleagues, neighbours, and even rival political supporters.

Even amid COVID-19 concerns, impromptu street parties began before the polls closed at 5:00 p.m., with little social distancing taking place, despite the fact that political parties were not keen to hold the usual celebrations at their headquarters. In Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ constituency, COVID-19 protocols took a back seat:

Another member of parliament posted a video of his constituents partying on Facebook.

The JLP’s emphatic win has been likened to the party's victory in the 1980 general election under the leadership of the late Edward Seaga, as well as the 1993 election won by the PNP, led at the time by PJ Patterson. On September 4, in the aftermath of his party's defeat, PNP leader Dr. Peter Phillips announced that he had submitted his resignation letter.

Now that election day is over, it’s back to the stark reality of COVID-19, with many Jamaicans expecting a tightening of restrictions, especially after Minister of Health and Wellness Christopher Tufton announced at a press briefing that Jamaica has entered the “community transmission” phase of the virus:

How the country's drastically changed political landscape will shape up under the burden of the pandemic's second wave remains to be seen.

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