The West Indian nation of Jamaica goes to the polls tonight, with centre-right prime minister Andrew Holness seeking a second term of office. The election was not due until the first half of next year, but Holness has decided to go early, evidently to take advantage of the boost to the government’s standing produced by the health crisis.
Holness’s party, counterintuitively, is the Jamaica Labour Party; its centre-left opposition is the People’s National Party, led by Peter Phillips. At the last election, in 2016, the JLP narrowly unseated the then PNP government, winning 50.1% of the vote to the PNP’s 49.7%.
Jamaica was formerly a British colony, so it shares Britain’s electoral system of first-past-the-post voting in single-member districts. It was therefore mostly a matter of luck that the JLP also won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, 32 to 31. The following year it took a seat from the opposition at a by-election, bringing it to a slightly more comfortable 33-30.
Even for a British-model system, the two-party dominance in Jamaica is quite extraordinary. The two between them have won every seat in every election since prior to independence, in 1962. Last time around, three very small minor parties and some independents managed a total of 0.2% of the vote, which is not untypical.
Just as a successful authoritarian system is not one where lots of opponents of the government are in prison, but rather one where no-one takes the risk of opposing the government in the first place, similarly the real triumph of a bad electoral system comes not when it systematically disenfranchises those who vote for minor parties, but rather when no-one bothers to vote for them anyway.
Regular alternation in power between two parties, however, does not mean that things have always been smooth sailing in Jamaica. In the 1970s the PNP drifted a long way to the left, and economic crisis led to deep social conflict and widespread violence. The JLP returned to office in 1980, and for a time was unopposed in parliament after the PNP boycotted a dubious early election in 1983.
For the last thirty years or so, however, the country has been peaceful and the differences between the two parties seem relatively modest. Neither has a great record on economic management, although by the standards of the region Jamaica is still in fairly good shape – or at least it was until the advent of Covid-19, which will have played havoc with the vitally important tourism sector.
The main question tonight will be how much the voters will punish Holness for calling an unnecessary election before the coronavirus is fully under control. The polls suggest that the JLP is headed for a comfortable victory, but we have already seen this year that the benefits of incumbency in a crisis are far from uniform.