During a televised debate against Dr. Peter Phillips (former president and leader of the People’s National Party) , Prime Minister Holness (leader of the Jamaican Labour Party) defended his record, “In our four and a half years 22,000 Jamaicans have had the chance, not to rent, but to own their own homes. We have created over 100,000 jobs; poverty is at its lowest in 10 years… We have made massive investments in security to equip our security forces and increase their presence in your communities,” (Holness, 2016). He then notes his greatest achievement: his ability to stabilize and lower taxes for Jamaican citizens. Despite these advancements, something that Prime Minister Holness did not address was how he intends to combat corruption in Jamaican politics along with explanations as to why it has continued unabated.
Corruption is a universal phenomenon, manifesting within many different countries. Although there are differing definitions of what constitutes corruption, generally speaking, it can be defined as, “the abuse of public office in exchange for private benefit,” (Shang-Jin Wei, 2001). Thought of as such, corruption is overwhelmingly evident in Jamaica’s political sphere and political history. Jamaican politics (both local and national) are riddled with corruption and is perceived as such among Jamaican voters. Oneil Madden, a reporter for the Jamaica Observer captures this sentiment, “Corruption in governance has become so commonplace that one would think there is an award given to the party under which the most corruption cases are revealed. What is sad is that these two political parties’ campaign on anti-corruption stances and scandals, and neither of them has the credibility to do so. However, this is also due to the impervious attitude of the electorate,” (Madden, 2020).
Given corruption’s pervasiveness within Jamaican voters’ understanding of government, how has it impacted their perceptions of their own ability to combat it? Are voters mobilized towards the polls and other democratic channels to change their government? Or, does corruption immobilize them and democratic participation?
Jamaica’s most recent election might give evidence that supports the affirmative of the latter given that this past election was one of the lowest voter turnouts in Jamaican history. If so, might perceptions of the presence of corruption in government generate voter apathy? Before addressing this question, it is necessary to understand voters’ thought processes surrounding how easily corruption is able to be combatted.
Nara Pavão’s, “Corruption as the Only Option: The Limits to Electoral Accountability” discusses why it is so difficult to democratically remove corrupt politicians from office. Based on data from Brazil, Pavão asserts that the problem cannot be understood as voters having a “lack of information” of the corruption that exists. It also cannot be attributed to voters “trading off” corruption for other desired qualities, but rather, “…corruption is an issue that voters are particularly skeptical politicians can handle. When voters believe that all politicians are equally incompetent to deal with corruption, they become less likely to base their vote on corruption concerns, and to throw those rascals out,” (Pavão, 996). Perhaps Pavão’s observations can explain the low voter turnout in Jamaica- if voters believe that all politicians are equally incompetent to address corruption, they are less likely to vote. More disturbingly, Pavão’s article introduces what I see as a bit of a Catch-22: the more corrupt a government, the less likely voters are to hold their government accountable (and are able to “vote out the corruption”). Only to compound the problem, “…incentives for holding governments accountable for corruption are more limited when they are needed most,” (Pavão, 997). Pavão puts this phenomenon into metrics:
The graph displays the effect of corruption on the probability of individuals believing that there is someone who can be voted into office to better handle the problem of corruption (Pavão, 1006). The figure demonstrates a robust relationship between high levels of corruption and increased probability of “perceived lack of choice options”. In other words, the higher the corruption level, the greater the probability for voters to feel that there is no other party or politician who would be better equipped to handle corruption. If we take this trend to be true, might this explain the reasoning for why Jamaicans did not vote Prime Minister Holness out of office? Might it also explain why the voter turnout for this election was so low?
Pavão introduces another table that introduces an equally troubling relationship:
Here, the results displayed (data was pulled from 800 voting age respondents in 2019 in the United States) show that the higher the levels of perceived corruption, the more likely respondents were to tolerate it. Thus, “Corruption can be defined as a self-fulfilling prophecy,” (Pavão, 1006). If so, what can be done about countries that are perceived to be highly corruptive? How can voters mobilize themselves in order to combat complacency and acceptance of corruptive environments? The answer to this is much more difficult than to simply say voters should “vote” the corrupt politicians out of office. Pavão suggests if democratic elections become ineffective at holding the powerful accountable it is time for citizens to turn to other institutions such as international organizations, as well as independent and esteemed institutions (Pavão, 1008).
Jamaica’s current anti-corruption policy spans over three anti-corruption institutions: the Office of the Contractor General, the Parliamentary Integrity of Members Commission, and the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption. However, although there are anti-corruption institutions in place “…since 1995, Jamaica continues to receive low scores for corruption control from a global organization that monitors corrupt practices in countries,” (Brown, 2018). Why are these anti-corruption institutions seemingly ineffective at combating corruption in Jamaica? Brown notes that the anti-corruption institutions in Jamaica are often given investigative powers rather than prosecutorial ones, thus explaining why even when systems or individuals are found to be corrupt, they are unable to be prosecuted. “New legal efforts to fight corruption have been mounted in recent years. These include the approval of the Integrity Commission Act of 2017, which requires lawmakers and public officials to disclose their income, liabilities, and assets; the act also streamlined anti-corruption laws and empowered a single commission to monitor compliance. The Integrity Commission began its work in 2018. In May 2019, the Integrity Commission announced that it sent six investigative reports to Parliament and supervised 500 government projects in its first year of operation, but no prosecutions were launched”, (Freedom House, 2020).
Given that the emphasis for Jamaica’s anti-corruption agencies is on exposing the corruption rather than prosecuting it, it seems the goals are to increase the government’s transparency as a way to deter corrupt politicians from engaging in corrupt behavior. However, as noted by Milan Vaishnav in, “When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics”, “…transparency is not necessarily the proximate driver of the rise of bad politicians,” (Vaishnav, 22). Furthermore, Lindsey Mayka’s and Amy Erica Smith’s “Could corruption investigations undermine democracy in Latin America?”, introduces evidence that suggests corruption investigations have the opposite than intended effect, and actually decreases public trust in democratic systems, contributes to lower voter turnout, and other forms of political participation (Mayka and Smith, 2018). This exact trend has been reported in Jamaica in the USAID Final Report: “Combating Corruption in Jamaica Final Performance Evaluation” (2015). “In Jamaica, particularly, a statistically significant correlation exists between rising awareness of corruption on the one hand and an increasing dissatisfaction with the performance of the country’s leading anti-corruption agencies and institutions on the other,” (15).
What options are citizens left with to combat corruption in their governments? The report also indicated that within both intervention and control parishes most individuals feel either “a lot of” or “ “some” ”personal responsibility to help the country become less corrupt,”. This seems like a good sign, for it is evidence that the majority of Jamaicans are not apathetic about the corruption within the Jamaican government and thus may be easily mobilized to take action against it. However, although Jamaican voters feel that they have personal responsibility to combat corruption, it seems equally as important that this responsibility is paired with a multi-dimensional plan that includes prosecuting corruption rather than simply investigating it or aimed at increasing government transparency. If it is not, it is my prediction that corruption will continue unabated.
BBC News. “Jamaica Election: Andrew Holness’ JLP Re-Elected amid Rise in Covid-19 Cases.” BBC News, BBC, 4 Sept. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-53997063.
Brown, Curt. Strengthening Jamaica’s Anticorruption Policy with an Independent Agency. 2018. Walden University. PhD dissertation. https://scholarworks.waldenu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6277&context=dissertations
Erica Smith, Amy, and Lindsey Mayka. “Could Corruption Investigations Undermine Democracy in Latin America?” Vox, Vox, 17 May 2018, www.vox.com/mischiefs-of-faction/2018/5/17/17363436/corruption-latin-america.
Freedom House. “Jamaica.” Freedom House, 2020, freedomhouse.org/country/jamaica/freedom-world/2020.
Jamaica Observer. “Corruption and Integrity.” Jamaica Observer, 2020, www.jamaicaobserver.com/opinion/corruption-and-integrity-is-it-the-party-that-is-corrupt-or-the-people-in-the-party-_198705?profile=1444.
Jamaica Observer. “Holness, Phillips End Debate on High Note.” Jamaica Observer, 2020 www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/holness-phillips-end-debate-on-high-note_202082?profile=1373.
Pavão, Nara. “Corruption as the Only Option: The Limits to Electoral Accountability.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 80, no. 3, 2018, pp. 996–1010., doi:10.1086/697954.
USAID. Final Report Combatting Corruption in Jamaica Final Performance Evaluation Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. Oct. 2015, www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Combatting-Corruption-in-Jamaica-Final.pdf.
Vaishnav, Milan. When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics. Yale University Press, 2017.
Wei, Shang-Jin. “Corruption and Globalization.” Brookings, Brookings, 28 July 2016, www.brookings.edu/research/corruption-and-globalization/.
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