UNIVERSAL Adult Suffrage is the right of citizens in a given society who are entitled to vote in an election to select, at periodic intervals when these elections are called, a government to represent them. Usually, the only restriction applies to people under a certain age.
This is of great significance to an older generation of people worldwide who were once unable to vote but have now become entitled to do so, particularly since the end of World War II in 1945. Great numbers of people in former war-torn countries and colonies dominated by European powers began to become independent in the 1950s and this was a major aspect of the struggle to end dictatorships and colonial or other forms of domination and win the right to vote.
In Jamaica, the history shows us that earlier voting was permissible for some time for the wealthier classes only. The requirements to vote essentially eliminated the broad, poorer population who had been slaves, and then mainly landless citizens up to 1938. This lack of freedom, and the accompanying oppressive social conditions since Emancipation in 1838, was marked by numerous attempts by Paul Bogle, George William Gordon, Marcus Garvey, Alexander Bustamante, Norman Manley, and numerous other freedom fighters like Robert Love, Mary Seacole, Aggie Bernard , Richard Hart, and Leonard P Howell to end colonial rule and gain economic, political and social rights for the Jamaican people.
After the 1938 Caribbean-wide rebellions, the British were advised by Lord Moyne, their investigator into the rebellion, that the best solution to return to a normal and peaceful co-existence would be to let the people get the right to vote, trade union representation, and political independence. Today, 2014 marks 70 years since the first elections under Universal Adult Suffrage were held in Jamaica and, since then, in other Caribbean states in similar fashion.
This life-changing experience has led to the appreciation of the right to vote amongst older people who were unable to do so at a point in time, and support for political parties, leaders and policymakers whom they now regarded as their leaders in political independence. Therefore, voter turnout and enthusiasm for elections in newly independent states was much higher than today, as the benefits were evident and accessible.
For example, in 1955, the percentage of total voters in Jamaica was 63.93 per cent of the total electorate. In 1967, 81.46 per cent; in 1976, 84.50 per cent; in 1980, 86.10 per cent; in 2002, 59.06 per cent; and in 2011, 53.17 per cent. We contend that this decline in voter turnout, which has become consistent in recent elections, is primarily due to a younger electorate who would not have experienced the transformation from active colonial rule to becoming a registered voter to choose one’s own Government. Additionally, the fact that elections became quite violent, corrupt, and seemingly useless for most voters, over time, turned off many from participating in elections in the last 30 years.
In fact, the Electoral Advisory Committee had to be established in 1979 to reform and save a discredited voting system in Jamaica, and this has become the major challenge facing the Electoral Commission and, indeed, the country. How do we institute meaningful electoral reform and campaign-financing strategies in order to win back the confidence of the people in Universal Adult Suffrage — the right to vote in a free and fair election, free from fear?
In a recent national political poll 80 per cent of the voting public said they wanted a direct vote for prime minister and 82 per cent want the right to recall non-performing members of parliament before the next general election. Furthermore, 70 per cent of the voters believe that politicians are corrupt, 80 per cent believe the same about the police and 50 per cent of civil servants.
These views are buttressed by the popular belief and evidence that those who finance elections are able to distort the outcomes, and these elections have really become a contest between the hard-core supporters of both major political parties. If we are going to rekindle enthusiasm for voting in Jamaica, and so many other countries in the world, there will have to be an agreement for new far-reaching changes in the political and electoral systems of these countries.
Campaign finance reform is a must, and must be open and transparent, with regulations in place to hold officials accountable for any infractions. Secret, special interest funding of elections have already debased the democratic process beyond repair in many countries and forced analysts and watchers to declare that democracy is for sale to the highest bidder in today’s political environment.
Today elections have to be meaningful to effectively lure voters to the polling stations, as was seen recently in Scotland and the USA where voters were more interested in issues that were most important to them, such as real independence, health care, education and the legalisation of marijuana.
The Jamaican public has spoken again through the polls and it is clear that most of the younger and more educated voters are no longer motivated to simply vote for a party, but for substantive policies, programmes, and opportunities for national and self-development.
There needs to be more emphasis on policy option voting, or more referendums and opinion polling to formulate policy, as is the growing trend in the more stable northern European welfare capitalist states.
This is what Universal Adult Suffrage must mean to people if we are seeking their participation to continue to advance society through a democratic political and electoral process.
Richard “Dickie” Crawford is a lecturer at the University of The West Indies, Mona; political analyst and talk show host.