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Jaevion Nelson | Undoing political apathy, time come

Published:Friday | March 24, 2023 | 12:15 AM
In this September 2020 photo, people are seen waiting at Grove Primary School on Gordon Town Road, St Andrew to cast their votes.
In this September 2020 photo, people are seen waiting at Grove Primary School on Gordon Town Road, St Andrew to cast their votes.

Political apathy in Jamaica, like many other countries, is commonplace and widening. One can reasonably conclude that this is somewhat entrenched due, in part, to the lethargic way in which many politicians implement their responsibilities and the...

Political apathy in Jamaica, like many other countries, is commonplace and widening. One can reasonably conclude that this is somewhat entrenched due, in part, to the lethargic way in which many politicians implement their responsibilities and the ineptitude of successive administrations to deliver on their promises, to transform people’s lives and society in a meaningful and sustainable way.

Consequently, political apathy has become so widespread that it is not at all unusual to hear people (boastfully) share about their disinterest in political activities before, during and after an election. Seemingly, this is especially common among younger Jamaicans. Undoubtedly, apathy contributed to the historic low voter turnout in the last general elections that were held in September 2020.

Dahl, et al., in their 2018 paper, Apathy or alienation? Political passivity among youths across eight European Union countries, suggest political apathy is the ‘lack of a desire, or motive, to take an interest in politics’. Similarly, Ana Pap (2020) argues ‘Political apathy represents the general disinterest and indifference of citizens towards politics, low levels of participation in political activities, and low turnout’.

The recent poll findings from the national surveys commissioned by The Gleaner and Nationwide News Network, conducted by Don Anderson and Bluedot Insights, respectively, give insight to the political apathy and low levels of democratic participation among citizens across all age groups. The Political Culture of Democracy in Jamaica and in the Americas, 2021: Taking the Pulse of Democracy was equally insightful. Among other things, they point to issues related to distrust, corruption, low confidence, and economic insecurity. It’d be interesting to see a breakdown of the findings based on age, levels of education, urban vs rural and socio-economic status. That should be considered and become a standard when presenting these data.

WAY FORWARD

That aside, the findings are instructive, and it is now up to our political leaders and organisations with a keen interest in good governance to take heed and develop strategies to chart a way forward. Over 10 years ago, I suggested that the youth arms of both major political parties should take an interest in this topic and actively work on educating young people about politics, the processes and encourage voting; not just when it’s time for an election. I suspect, however, that the onus might be on good governance-related organisations to engender greater levels of democratic participation since politicians are seemingly/arguably comfortable with the status quo.

Conversations, over the last few weeks, with Jamaicans under 30 years were a timely reminder that we are in a crisis. We have hit rock bottom and there is nary a concern among our political leaders that vast numbers of us have tuned them out and have never voted and do not plan to vote in the next election. In one of the last such conversations, a friend lashed out at a young woman who shared she has absolutely no desire to vote. He expressed that the country cannot be better, if young people insist on not voting and do not even bother to care what parliamentarians and councillors do.

In 2015, a Gleaner commissioned Bill Johnson poll found over 50 per cent of Jamaicans, between 18 and 34 years old, did not plan to vote in the next general election. A further breakdown of the poll findings showed 47 per cent of 18–24-year-olds and 40 per cent of 25-34 years olds indicated they would not vote. At the time, 25 per cent; 27 per cent of 18-24- and 25–34-year-olds, respectively, would vote for the Holness-led Jamaica Labour Party. It’d be interesting to know what the figures are now where both parties are concerned.

POLITICAL APATHY

In a 2015 blog about political apathy among young people in the United Kingdom, Filippos Letsas argued that ‘Logic says that the less politicians urge young people to become engaged with politics, the less young people are likely to vote. But one can also say that, the less young people are likely to vote, the more politicians will ignore their demands, feeling that there is no risk of being punished at the ballot box. Hence, the millennial generation will become even more distanced from politics, and the vicious circle will continue.’

Our response to the issue of apathy has been quite curious over the last few weeks. It’s rather odd to hear and see people talk about apathy as if it is a new phenomenon, as if the writing hasn’t been on the wall for decades. People are hankering for transformation, inspiration and hope and, if we’re being honest, many politicians, whether they’re in central or local government, are woefully inept in this regard. Yes, from time to time, we get a glimmer of hope, like a wee bit of rain when there is drought, but that’s rarely ever sustained.

Balford Lewis in The Political Culture of Democracy in Jamaica and in the Americas, 2021: Taking the Pulse of Democracy argues ‘A healthy and sustainable democracy is built on a foundation of an active and inclusive citizenship, a key element of this being the popular participation of citizens in the political process, particularly by way the vote. The perennially low voter turnout in national elections in Jamaica over the past decades should therefore be a cause for some anxiety, as voter participation acts as a gauge of the degree of ‘vibrancy’ of a democracy and the legitimacy of government.’

We desperately need a new normal. Time come. Perhaps widening political apathy should be put on the agenda for the next Vale Royal Talks.

Jaevion Nelson is a human-rights, economic and social justice and inclusive-development advocate. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @jaevionn.