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A call for a return to real politics

Heading from central Kingston towards the sea you can take a route through an area called Olympic Gardens. Few do, unless they have to. It’s a classic Jamaican “garrison”: politics and drugs merge with dangerous consequences. The ruling People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) are neck and neck with a general election imminent. It’s

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by Richard Calland

an election observer’s nightmare — one in which the level of violence and intimidation may actually decide who wins and who loses.

Olympic Way dissects the garrison. On one side is Olympic Gardens, which is controlled by the PNP, and on the other, the Marl Road and Tower Hill areas that are equally robustly JLP. Sound familiar? There is a distinct resonance with parts of KwaZulu-Natal. Social worker Fabian Brown’s analysis confirms the thought: “Unemployment is very high here so when one political party offers work, people are prepared to do its bidding. In return, people expect the party, if it wins, to deliver to its community ahead of the others.”

According to Brown, people say “wait till my party is in power and I will be back on my feet”. The poignancy of this statement is that it is so far from the truth. Aside from the most pernicious forms of pork-barrel governance, there is precious little real power that either party will be able to exert over the future of this beautiful island. The formal politics of the past 100 years, expressed in the relationship between the citizen and the state, with the political party as the interlocutor, is as dead as a dodo.

What, I ask Brown, is the difference between these two traditional bastions of Jamaican politics? He laughs for what seems like two minutes. Nothing, apparently. A human rights lawyer I met the day before had put it neatly: “The only difference is that one is in power and the other is not.” This seems like an epitaph fit to attach to contemporary politics the world over. Clustered around the centre-ground, hanging desperately to the notion of “good management” as the centrepiece of good governance, hang most politicians.

The PNP was once resolutely socialist, under the hegemonic leadership of the charismatic Michael Manley. Now it is vaguely third way, running a tight fiscal ship, to the approval of the big international donors, but little else. Its leader, Prime Minister PJ Patterson, is in his 60s. His opponent, Edward Seaga, is 72, though his young wife’s pregnancy gives a veneer of virility to the sterility of his party’s electioneering. At the bizarre launch of its manifesto, a young JLP gun fresh out of Harvard reads out a long list of policy ideas. The list goes on and on, for three hours, as next to him Seaga’s make-up laden eyelids close repeatedly over his clear sea-green eyes. There is but one unoriginal idea underpinning the manifesto: attracting foreign direct investment better. Get the economic fundamentals right and the investment and jobs will follow. Sound familiar?

Last month the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) finally summoned the courage to do what its senior officials, past and present, have been wanting to do for several years: attack globalisation and liberal democracy in its current form. The UNDP Human Development Report 2002 is a remarkable document. Entitled Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World, it attacks the complacency of the “good governance” agenda mapped out by the World Bank and other international financial institutions in the early 1990s. A democratisation surge had marked the previous decade; about 81 countries had taken significant steps towards democracy and today, the UNDP report notes, 140 of the world’s nearly 200 countries hold multi-party elections — more than ever before.

Yet, despite all this, citizens throughout the world are worse off and inequality between and within states has grown. South Africa’s per capita income is lower now than it was in the early 1980s; since 1990 it has fallen 19 places in the Human Development Index to 107 (out of 173).

“Around the world,” says Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, the chief author of the report, “there is a growing sense that democracy has not delivered development, such as more jobs, schools, health care for ordinary people.” Globalisation has driven massive technological advance and intense levels of interdependence, but it has also removed power from states and therefore from citizens, whose “contract” is with their governments, not with the new array of multi-lateral institutions that sit above.

In 1999 Gallup International’s Millenium Survey asked more than 50 000 people in 60 countries if their country was governed by the will of the people. Less than a third of respondents said yes and only one in 10 said their government responded to the people’s will.

“Granting all people formal political equality does not create an equal desire or capacity to participate in political processes — or an equal capacity to influence outcomes. Imbalances in resources and political power often subvert the principle of one person, one vote, and the purpose of democratic institutions,” says the UNDP report.

It is not enough to whine about the unfairness of global capitalism. Nonetheless, what University of Cape Town economist Michael Power describes as the “deeply troubling” failure of the free market to develop “equitable growth” cannot be ignored. What distinguishes Power, along with more famous United States economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, is that they are capitalists who want to rescue the current brand of capitalism from the disastrous social consequences that its inherent self-interest is apparently so blind to.

The usually clear-thinking columnist Ken Owen fails to see the obvious, arguing with other free-market neo-liberals, such as John Kane-Berman, that “trickle-down” market-led growth is the only way, despite all the evidence, catalogued so expertly in the UNDP report, of its failure.

What can be done to save parliamentary democracy? Like last year’s economics Nobel Prize winner Stiglitz in his new book Globalisation and its Discontents, the UNDP calls for an urgent reform of the international financial institutions to end the “democracy deficit” of secretive organisations such as the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank. Access to information — corporate as well as multilateral and domestic state — is essential if people are to have the power to participate; the right to know is the right to live.

Correctly, it also calls for a decisive intervention to curb the influence of money in politics; increased corporate funding of political parties is making them accountable to wealth and markets, not voters.

The UNDP report records the growth in the numbers and power of NGOs in the past decade, to 37 000 registered international organisations in 2000. According to those who had not like me escaped, it seems as if every single one of them was at the Joburg summit. “Social movement” is a new entrant to the governance cliche lexicon, though they have been around forever. The defining characteristic is that they operate outside of formal, parliamentary politics. Globalisation has propelled their importance and their numbers; its technology has armed its capacity to mobilise (so-called “Seattleism”); and the decline in nation-state power has fuelled its demand for more responsive politics.

It adds up to a vibrant call for a return to real politics*. Beneath the bright lights of CNN’s coverage of the “war on terrorism” and the US’s tragic determination to rebuke international law, lurks a revolution of a very different kind — a revolution in accountability, in which public and private power responds to the needs of citizens not markets. You can join it, or you can stick your head up your arse and pray to whichever god you think might save you. Even if you are a Jamaican voter, there is a choice.

Real Politics: The Wicked Issues by Sean Jacobs, Greg Power and Richard Calland is available from the Institute for Democracy in South Africa in Cape Town. Richard Calland was in Jamaica as a consultant, advising the government and civil society on the implementation of its new Access to Information Act

Archive: Previous columns by Richard Calland

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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