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Jamaica Election

By Jimmy Carter

When we visited Jamaica last January, the two opposition political parties(JLP and NDM) asked The Carter Center to monitor the next parliamentary elections. However, they felt there would be less of a need to do so if a high technology system of voter registration and polling was installed.

The ruling PNP party initially did not want to invite international observers, considering the proposal to be a reflection on the nation's sovereignty and an insinuation of incompetence or impropriety. However, public pressure built as time for the elections approached. Many groups in Jamaica implored The Carter Center to monitor the elections because of fear of increasing violence and intimidation. Partly in response to those fears, all three parties approved a change in the law to permit foreign observers. The national election commission invited us, all three parties welcomed our presence, and we were the only international monitors.

There is no nationwide tabulation of votes in Jamaica; 60 members of the parliament are elected, each in a separate constituency. The prevailing party then chooses the prime minister and 13 members of the senate, and the opposition party names the other eight senators. They serve for five year terms, unless the prime minister decides to call an earlier election.

From September through early December we sent three pre-election observer teams to Jamaica to learn about its election procedures, potential problems, and to forge good working relations with political leaders, security forces, election officials, and a group of volunteer domestic election observers (CAFFE). Realizing the seriousness of the challenges involved, we formed an especially prestigious and influential group of leaders, including General Colin Powell, Reverend Joseph Lowery, former presidents of Bolivia and Costa Rica, the former prime minister of Belize, and world heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield. Robert Pastor coordinated the entire effort, as he has in 16 other Latin American elections. In a total delegation of 60 persons from 11 nations, our family was represented by Rosalynn and me, our son Chip, and our grandson Jason.

After thorough briefings, we deployed 25 two-person teams throughout the nation on December 17, to become familiar with their assigned constituencies and to consult with top election officials. In order to reduce potential violence, we also encouraged the three party leaders, Prime Minister P.J. Patterson (PNP), former prime minister Edward Seaga (JLP), and Bruce Golding (NDM) to join Ombudsman James Kerr and us in a public appeal for "fair elections, free of fear."

On election day, our teams visited 1,111 of the 6,332 voting places. Those of us in the Kingston urban areas witnessed many problems during the day, but observer teams in the suburban and rural areas reported almost unanimously that there were few problems and the election was fair, free, and safe. Although there were some failures to deliver accurate registration lists and other voting materials on time, all the sites eventually functioned well enough to permit voters to cast their ballots. There were four deaths, although the police later said that at least three were not related to the elections. The fourth, a party observer, was stabbed. Tragically, she was the mother of seven children. Despite this deplorable violence, police officials and the news media recognized this as the most harmonious and peaceful election in recent history.

One unique and most disturbing feature of Jamaican politics is a number of "garrison" communities, mostly in the urban area of Kingston, each of which is totally dominated by one of the two major political parties. Within them, opponents can enter only at the risk of being attacked. In many cases in these areas, votes are tabulated several hours before the polls close, 100 percent of those registered having "voted" for the dominant party -- no matter how many have actually come to the polling site. The two major parties have accepted this arrangement, each struggling to carve out garrison communities for themselves. In the past, most of the massive violence has occurred when political adversaries entered the territories or there were battles over votes along the borders separating two garrisons.

Despite this and other problems, the election was judged to be remarkably successful, and the results were not disputed by opponents -- except for a few routine legal challenges likely to be filed in the coming weeks.

The ruling PNP party won an overwhelming victory, gaining about 51 of the 60 seats. Although we expect there will be challenges in five or six constituencies, the overall result will not change. The other two leaders made gracious concession speeches by 10 p.m. on election night, and then came by our headquarters to express thanks for our contributions as monitors.

At a press conference the next morning, we reported on our observations and made some preliminary recommendations for improving the democratic process in Jamaica. In summary, we believe the results fairly represented the collective will of the voting public, but there are some historic and previously accepted aspects of the electoral system that need to be changed or improved drastically. We will make a definitive report within a few weeks, including recommendations for correcting some of the defects we observed in the electoral process.

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