Examining Political Apathy among Young People in Jamaica :
By Donovan Reynolds & Kevton Foster Bloggers& Independent Writers
The phenomenon of voter apathy in Jamaica has long been an enigma to, politicians political commentators and academics in Jamaica. This discourse seeks to excavate some of the main causes and identify, with the aid of statistics, a number of contributory variables that need to be addressed if we are to begin to engage young people in the political process. The overall aim of this dialectic is that through this and other discussions, ideas can emerge that will broaden the scope and involvement of the apathetic Jamaican voters in nation building thereby paving the way for them to be involved in a more vibrant democratic process.
Whilst dwindling voter turnout at elections in Jamaica has long been a subject of study by political commentators interested in more general issues of political participation, the reasons for the recent precipitous decline are not yet well understood. It is evident; however, that the decline is not connected solely with the “Dudus” saga, as turnout has declined in each of the last three general elections. In addition, it does not seem that the low voter decline is necessarily connected to political issues and events specific to Jamaica as other young democracies in the Caribbean and Latin America are facing the same phenomenon. Why then are young adults demonstrating such an entrenched apathy to the political process generally and voting in particular? This is the vexing question that political campaigns have been asking for decades and is a subject that deserves ongoing analysis.
Socio-economic factors significantly affect whether or not individuals develop the habit of voting. The most important socio-economic factor affecting voter turnout is education. The more educated a person is, the more likely he or she will be to exercise their right to vote. There are factors that are closely associated with high voter turn-out apart from a good educational background, such as income and class. Income, for example, has some effect independently. In developed countries wealthier people are more likely to vote, regardless of their educational attainment. However, even the wealthiest Jamaicans seem to be currently apathetic due to almost fifty years of economic decline. Furthermore this problem is further compounded given the fact that nearly two thirds of Jamaicans are functionally illiterate. There is an average of 20,000 students graduating from secondary schools every year without the necessary qualifications and skills to join the workforce This naturally exacerbates the problem of unemployment. In addition, some estimates show as much as 66% of Jamaicans between the ages of 18 to 40 are unskilled, surely this is a fertile ground for voter apathy. In essence, considering the aforementioned prevailing conditions in Jamaica, it was not surprising that there was a record low voter turnout with only 52.2% of the registered electorate casting their votes in the last General Election held in Jamaica in 2011.
Shalman Scott a former Mayor of Montego bay turned political commentator posited in 2013 that: “youths in Jamaica like everywhere else yearn for a good life. Young people want a life that is filled with opportunities, meaning, and a good standard of education, peace and security”. He further opined that if these needs are not met, they will become frustrated and alienated from the political process. He also made an important distinction at the time -that despite the fact that Andrew Holness was a young candidate at the time of the General election in 2011, he was unable to capture more than 6000 voters from the new electoral roll of 300,000. While his older opponent on the opposition bench, Mrs Portia Simpson-Miller, was able to attract 58,000 of these new voters. As a result she defeated her younger political challenger and former Prime Minister, Mr Holness, relegating him to the dispatch box on the opposition bench. The victory was an emphatic one for the PNP as it was the first time in the history of post-colonial Jamaica that a party was ousted from government in a single term of office. Statistics never tell the complete story as there were other variables that might have cost the JLP election but that discussion is best left for another extended debate at some other time.
The mean average age of parliamentarians in Jamaica is about 60 years of age and the impression given is that they are lagging behind in the use of digital mode of communication technology when compared to young people who were born into the 90s fast paced technological revolution and the emergenc of internet generation. The young voters between the ages of 18 to 26 were born in an era of fast paced technological advancement and look to social media as their primary mode of communication. Therefore there is definitely a communication gap between themselves and an older breed of politicians, some of whom are still stuck in the analogue age and are lagging behind in the usage of these new technologies. In order to politically reach these techno-savvy young people, the mode of communication and new methods of voting have to be brought in line with their cultural thinking if they are to become politically accessible.
While researching this topic we have spoken to some young Jamaicans on social media who are turned off by politics. They believe the political class in Jamaica is not meeting their needs. They complained that these politicians seemingly cling on to power and widen the gap between their working lives and their pension packages. In the process narrowing the opportunity for young people to get involved in the political process at the leadership level. They see these old politically clingy politicians living it large by driving SUVs, their children are privately educated abroad and they do not use the local hospitals or take the public transportation system. They cite the fact that corruption and graft is widespread by politicians and the prisons and police cells are bulging at the seams with young men trying to shoot their way out of poverty. Surely, their claims are merited and as a consequence they have lost trust in government, are alienated from politics and have lost the belief in the efficacy of voting and good governance.
Would it be unreasonable to demand that these ‘over-stayers’ go? Is the time not ripe and right for fresh young talent to bring a fresh new perspective to the political arena? One is not advocating that the elders have nothing to contribute. However, one must seriously, impartially and conscientiously question the success, veracity and even commitment of these elder statesmen. Furthermore, the age difference between politicians and young voters alienates young people from the political process. Youths hold the perception that political parties do not reach out to them or are simply out of touch with them. In essence, youth do not believe that government represents them or cares about their views or address their needs and their issues.
Governing politicians may argue vociferously to the contrary but the figures do support the claims of Jamaica’s youth. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs & Communications, the youth Unemployment rate in Jamaica increased to 7 percent in June of 2014 from 6.60 percent in May of 2014. Youth Unemployment Rate in Jamaica averaged 5.65 Percent from 1968 until 2014, reaching an all-time high of 13.20 Percent in March of 2003 and a record low of 1.20 Percent in November of 1968.
In critiquing the political apathy in Jamaica, the age of the country’s democracy must be up for examination. One could almost say Jamaica is a youth among the nations and is still in an economic and political maturation process. Jamaica may be well established in the international community due to its cultural prowess and its reputation for world renowned athletes but it is still only 52 years old in terms of its political independence.
Elections require considerable involvement by the population, and it takes some time to develop the cultural habit of voting, and the associated understanding of, and confidence in the electoral process. This factor may explain the lower turnouts in post-colonial democracies in the Caribbean and Latin America who are still shaping their cultural identity. We believe that the core curriculum of any developing country needs to connect young people with the political process from a very young age. A failure to do so may result in a feeling that politics does not affect them, perhaps because they do not receive the knowledge based resources to develop the responsibilities that are the subject of a meaningful political discourse.
One of the main reasons for the alienation from politics in Jamaica is misplaced developmental policies. The country has gone down the road of heavily investing in cross-Island road infrastructural development funded by external debt. The hope is that this will spur growth and development but in the process they have ignored investment in Human Resource development at their absolute peril. This fact seems to be verified by recent statistics. According to the statistical Institute of Jamaica the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Jamaica contracted 0.50 percent in the first quarter of 2014 over the previous quarter.
Having four first-world highways is not a bad idea but a massive development in meeting the skills needs of young people is absolutely necessary in order to stimulate growth. The government of Jamaica underestimates the ability of a young skilled work force to be innovative and create wealth. This will in turn decrease external borrowing, reduce crime and social deprivation and create confidence in politics and engender confidence in good governance. The need for capacity building around creating opportunities for young Jamaicans to participate in a stake holder society is urgent as young people are stretched with frustration to the margins. The questions politicians must ask themselves is, are they in power to serve or to swerve?
This article was Written jointly by Donovan Reynolds CEO of Kingston- Mouth and Kevton Foster Managing Editor of Kingston-Mouth .com. Both Authors are Independent Bloggers and Human Rights Activists who are of Jamaican descent and are Legal Academics who have an interest in Human Rights and International Development issues.Viewers wishing to give feed back on this article may do so in the space provided for commentary on this blog.