Dead End Politics: Voter Apathy — The Case of Jamaica

Donna Mattis
7 min readApr 14, 2021

Democracy is that lofty ideal that is everybody’s battle cry but no one seems to understand its complexities, its dynamics, what it takes to make it work, so when they get it becomes the classic case of having it but not knowing what to do with it — — certainly not knowing how to make it work to their welfare. The results of Jamaica’s last elections were the most rank example of that dilemma.

For a while now voters have lost their zest for participation in the process as far as elections go. Understandably, because over the years the promise of an Independent Jamaica has not borne the qualitative and quantitative expectations and promises that herald new beginnings.

Gradually, voter participation has declined to such alarming levels that questions of legitimacy and the right to rule, though constitutionally authorized by Westminster first past the post (FPTP) formalization, must become an agenda issue if democracy is not only to be preserved but evolve.

The Nature of Democracy

One of democracy’s main objectives is the decentralization of political power to permit the majority of citizens to exercise influence over their political environment (Class, State and Democracy, Carl Stone, 1985). An imperative because despite changes in the course of history there continues to be tensions between development and the material inequalities of post-World War II societies. The fight for democracy, therefore, is a political impulse to a reality where distinctions of birth, social rank, education and occupation continue to alienate the masses even as a new course, the politics of the equality of rights-based transformation, was embarked on.

Democracy was the response that would put brakes on and hold in check the tendency towards the inequality of wealth and power in the political and social systems — — the beginning of the class struggle. Lacking the material resources to affect the kind of changes that are needed, the election became the power tool in the hands of the citizens. The question though is this: do the people understand the workings of that power and how to use it for transformative change? In other words how to make the process more than an abstraction.

Promises, Failure, Disillusionment and Withdrawal

In much the same way that the people do not understand democracy and their power position within the social and political dynamics, so too the political leaders do not understand the people and the relationship between themselves and the people. If they did maybe we would not be at this present juncture. Or maybe they do and we are the ones thinking they don’t!

The disillusionment with the process was a slow and steady progression of continued promises and continued failure to deliver on election commitments. As times progressed the idea of the voter being a mere means to a political end took hold in the psyche. Particularly, when at the end of every political cycle the absentee “landlords” would suddenly roll into town with fresh promises for the basic rights entitled to their constituents. Withdrawal from the process became a social impulse against political negligence and rightly so; except that withdrawal has to come with an alternative plan on how to reform or revolutionize the system and make it work to the ideals that are held to be self-evident. This is the ongoing challenge and this is where the erection of blockers between those who refuse to participate and the system has been calamitous as witnessed by the September 3, 2020 elections.

Participatory Democracy vs Representative Democracy: The Role of The People

Democracy in and of itself cannot work unless there is a coalition of sociopolitical interests to make it work. It will live up to its own standards if people take the process way beyond the periodic voting exercise that has overwhelmingly passed for “working” democracies as a feature of western political convention.

Its greatest repay is participatory democracy and not the baneful representative imitation that we have allowed it to depart and descend into. Democracy needs people as much as people need democracy. Voter apathy does nothing to protect and evolve that process. What it does is allow for the descent into a one-party dictatorship, minority rule and the harmful tyranny of the minority.

What Has Withdrawal Accomplished?

So, a staggering 67.4 % of the voting population has decided to turn their backs on the electoral process and understandably so. But what will that achieve but the granting of unwarranted power in the hands of a virtual dictator? What has it ever achieved except the handing over of the voting process to political tribalists to battle for the spoils?

The Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) as of 2018 showed that 73.6% (2,181,070) Jamaicans are eligible to vote. In the last elections, a mere 710,457 bothered to do so with 406,085 voting for the one-party and 304,372 for the other. It means that 1,470,613 eligible voters boycotted the polls — — two-thirds of the voting cohort felt it was not worthwhile because “it changes nothing”. Well, it certainly won’t if you don’t get up and stand up and lead the change.

The Jamaican media certainly hasn’t made this much of an issue. Not that it is not talked about. It always is…every four years — — between banter and the poring in of results on election night. Taled about yes, but not with the urgency that it demands. As media go it is sensational to splash headlines captioned: “Wipeout”! “Pulverized”! “Carnage”! on front pages of their dailies when there are landslide victories makes for an urban legend. Sensationalism and nothing more against the background of a whopping 18. 2 % drop to 37% in voter turnout compared to the last polls. Why not have that conversation in earnest and the cumulative effect it is having on a fragile democracy?

Any victory where a near 70% of the voting population stays away is pyrrhic when placed in full context. It does not improve the process and at the end of it is minority rule. Political parties have a lot to ponder if they are to act to save the fledgeling democracy whose only saving grace for those scraping the bottom of the barrel is that regime change — — or not — — is still subjected to the ballot rather than more violent means. All this, however, seems to be lost in demoralizing the loser and feeding the arrogance of the victor.

What Use The Protest Vote?

Sixty-seven point five per cent (67.5%) of eligible voters stayed home and we romanticized it. They seem to wear it as a badge. A proud badge of protest but what were they protesting?:

  1. Corruption
  2. Crime monster
  3. Political cronyism and nepotism
  4. A rundown health system where people die on the floors of hospitals or in wheelchairs for lack of treatment while the minister with responsibility lives in his own little PR world
  5. An education system in need of a complete overhaul

Protest we must but where has it got us since we have been protesting? In the same way, we cannot vote and return home and depend on the good-naturedness of politicians to live up to our expectations and the promises they make, so too we cannot just remove ourselves and expect that the changes we demand will come. They certainly haven’t as the gap of disenchantment grows wider. In fact, the cleavages have only deepened.

It means that we are at a critical stage in our democracy. It means that we need to rethink what democracy means. How to make it work and most critically the role that we have to play in making it work. The key to that is people participation or creating a genuine participatory democracy in lieu of the representative system that has fed so much of the disillusionment. Don’t keep believing that elections in and of themselves make good democracies. Forget it! They don’t!

It demands political action! Action that goes beyond voting to working together to influence and have a hand in the decision-making process. Why should political representatives be the sole decision-makers in policies that affect our lives even more than it does theirs? While we have been fed the misconception that democracy in itself means the rule of the people and therefore is participatory, historically the reality contradicts that belief. True democracy means participation!

Community-based Action Within Civil Society

It is clear that withdrawing from the process is not enough — — it would never be. We have to re-focus on building strong non-governmental groups within the disenchanted civil society and non-governmental institutions. It is the only way to have a just society — — that genuine separation between civil society and the formal political realm (The Idea of Civil Society, Adam B. Seligman (Princeton University Press, 1992).

As the representative form of democracy leads to greater and greater voter indifference it is imperative that those who refrain from participating begin participation by forging a people-based alliance at the community level to promote greater people involvement to replace representative democracy. Representative democracy is overwhelmed by deficiencies brought by its inorganic relationship between the political elite, the ruling class they represent and the people. It has failed. How do we craft a truly democratic society? The politician is not going to do it. He is very clear on what his role in the sociopolitical dynamic is. It is time for the 67.4% to come to terms with what their function is. Until then the minority rule of the last poll will quickly morph into dictatorship. All signs suggest that it already has!



Donna Mattis

History/Politics degree/taught for a while/ once copywriter. On a journey of reclamation of Afrikan identity to the full restoration of African humanity.