Jamaica's stability: threatened by a one-sided election?

Some Jamaicans are becoming concerned that their country's democratic system is being undermined by the irresponsibility of both major political parties. In last week's snap election, only six out of 60 parliamentary seats were contested. Those Jamaicans who chose to vote could merely confirm Prime Minister Edward Seaga's total control of the country's top legislative body. (Only 20 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.)

Mr. Seaga, feeling strengthened by a surge of post-Grenada popularity, had decided to call elections two years earlier than scheduled. Although this is permitted under Jamaican law, the elections were called under circumstances that prompted left-wing opposition leader and former Prime Minister Michael Manley to boycott them.

Mr. Manley withdrew his People's National Party from the electoral process when Seaga broke an agreement not to hold elections until a new voter registration list was completed. The voter lists used last week were made up before the 1980 election and do not include Jamaicans who were under age at that time but who now are eligible to vote. A new voter list with a younger, more radical electoral makeup might have worked to Manley's advantage.

Most observers say that Seaga called elections not only because of his post-Grenada popularity, but also because he worried his popularity would slip under economic hardships expected to accompany the devaluation of the Jamaican dollar. They think Manley withdrew because he knew he did not stand a chance of winning the elections with either the new or the old voter lists.

According to one prominent longtime American observer of the Caribbean scene, ''Thinking people in Jamaica condemn both Seaga and Manley for placing political gamesmanship above the stability of the system.

''It's hard to say for certain, but it might be that Jamaicans will consider the undermining of the Westminster (parliamentary) system, a more heinous crime than violating a political agreement. This has basically been a political error on both sides.''

Jamaicans prize their political stability because in recent years they have not always been able to take it for granted.

While Michael Manley was prime minister (1972-1980) Jamaican society became polarized in a debate over his increasingly radical economic and foreign policies.

Manley nationalized a significant portion of Jamaica's larger industry. He also attempted to redistribute national income so that more of it reached a substantial number of poor Jamaicans. Although he succeeded in ameliorating the living conditions of the poorest islanders, he did so at the expense of general economic growth, with a 25 percent drop in total GNP between 1973 and 1980.

There was a scarcity of foreign exchange for imports, which led to a corresponding scarcity of consumer goods throughout the island. Manley did, however, follow a policy of import substitution and developed local industries, which were not very efficient. Finally, he gained the enmity of the United States by maintaining close relations with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Largely because of Manley's economic problems, the 1980 elections were won by Seaga's Jamaican Labor Party. They were, however, marred by the importing of guns to arm party militias (which many observers charge was initiated by Seaga's party), subsequent heavy violence, and charges of substantial CIA involvement in an effort to ensure Seaga's election.

The Reagan administration hailed Seaga's victory and hoped it would provide a potential model for laissez-faire development in the Caribbean.

Seaga immediately started to denationalize and remove controls on private sector activity. He lifted controls on imports, subjecting them to foreign competition, in an effort to make Jamaican industry more efficient. Rent control and subsidies on basic foodstuffs were ended. Attempting to satisfy Jamaican consumers, the prime minister borrowed money from abroad in order to bring consumer goods in.

At first Jamaicans were satisfied with the reappearance of consumer goods and the fall in inflation, which was high under Manley. Seaga also benefited from an influx of US aid and private investment. But the growing world recession severely hurt the Jamaican economy. Bauxite sales, which accounted for 75 percent of Jamaica's export income, plummeted. And Seaga's reluctance to devalue hurt Jamaica's balance of payments.

Furthermore, Seaga's lifting of import restrictions led many Jamaican industries to lay off workers or close down altogether. The average Jamaican's standard of living fell with the rise in the price of basic foods. And rents rose after subsidies and controls were ended.

As one US government official said when asked when the average Jamaican was better: ''Who knows? Under Manley, they didn't have consumer goods. Under Seaga, they can't afford them.''

These economic difficulties led to a fall in Seaga's popularity, so that until the Grenada intervention, Manley had a slight edge in the polls.

Today, Jamaicans are troubled by the threat of political violence. Manley has said he will take his case to the people, and plans to hold a series of public meetings and demonstrations. Given Jamaica's past, this could degenerate into violence or even the destabilization of the political system, most observers say.

US government observers, however, are optimistic. They believe that the recent devaluation and the expected influx of private investment of the Caribbean Basin Initiative will improve Jamaica's economy and that, subject to internal and external pressures, Seaga will call for new elections but in a year or two.

They also feel that Manley has become more moderate in recent years.

Other observers are less optimistic, and say that as long as Manley believes he has no chance to win elections, he will resort to violence rather than face defeat.

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