Byron Buckley, News Editor
JAMAICA'S HUGE underbelly of poverty, widespread perception of social injustice, and the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots are fertile grounds for the advent of a populist government.
Commenting on Jamaica today, economist Errol Gregory says the need "to curb the perception of injustice and the mal-distribution of income" could push the electorate to elect a populist government.
The last such government, emphasising social equality, was the Michael Manly regime from 1972 to 1980. It sought to redistribute wealth through, for example, the introduction of a minimum wage, as well as by strengthening labour laws to protect the interests of the working class. Manley also widened access to secondary and tertiary education by making tuition free. There was also an increased expenditure on providing public health services.
Northern Caribbean University (NCU) social scientist Charlene Sharpe-Pryce reinforces Gregory's view. She argues that populist governments are usually ushered in on the "rolling tide of mass anger and discontent with poverty, injustice, discrimination and the seeming disempowerment of the masses."
She further suggests that the failure of neo-liberalism or free market principles to improve the lot of the masses, especially since the collapse of communism, has triggered "neo-populist tendencies".
There is a parallel in the Jamaican situation where the incumbent People's National Party (PNP) Government has been pursuing for more than a decade the liberalisation of the economy. This has benefited the wealthier more than the poorer classes in the society.
HIGH INTEREST RATE POLICY
In fact, Gregory, who hosts a financial analysis programme on radio, points out that government's high interest rate policy feeds into the process that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. As at July this year, government owed domestic holders of its investment instruments a total of $472 billion.
Of the four candidates in the ruling PNP vying to succeed P.J. Patterson as party president and Prime Minister, Local Government Minister Portia Simpson Miller has most consistently identified with the plight of the country's large underclass.
A week ago Simpson Miller was in Montego Bay calling for the bridging of the gap between the "haves and haves-nots" in the resort city, which has 17 inner-city communities.
"There is a pragmatic and humanitarian reason why we must pay attention to the cries of these 17 communities, using them as representatives of the larger problem faced by Jamaica as a whole," she argued.
The Planning Institute of Jamaica in 2002 says nearly 20 per cent of households were below the poverty line, inching up from a low of over 15 per cent in 1998.
Simpson Miller's popularity among the masses has been captured repeatedly by opinion surveys. A Gleaner commissioned poll, conducted by Market Research Limited in February, found that Simpson Miller was the favourite choice of 54 per cent of persons interviewed to succeed P.J. Patterson as Prime Minister. Low income earners formed 59 per cent of pro-Portia respondents, while 62 per cent constituted young persons.
Although trade unionist Danny Roberts maintains there is more to a populist government than the spouting of 'populist rhetoric', he says he would welcome a populist government with a left-leaning agenda.
"This would mean mobilising the country around some visionary goals", states Roberts, a vice-president of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions. He also wants a populist agenda to include "deepening the level of people participation, ensuring that the benefit of economic development are shared equitably by the people, and generally putting people first."
But according to Sharpe-Pryce, who heads the department of geography, history and social sciences at NCU, attempts to shift social relations could backfire and hurt the economy.
"The elite in the society, I believe, will have to defend their class interest, which would not be in support of populist sentiments, and this could result in mass(ive) capital flight," she warns. The social scientist bases her analysis on the experience of the Manley administration during the 1970s, during which the business and professional elite migrated in droves to North America, fearing Manley's fiery socialist rhetoric.
But it may not come to this again: Economic analysts, like Errol Gregory, believes the process of liberalisation has become too entrenched for any future government to attempt to reverse in order to regain control of the commanding heights of the economy. Undoing free market policies, Gregory suggests, would be even more daunting in light of the internationally integrated state of the economy. Jamaica, the economist thinks, would face opposition from the United States if the Caribbean nation pursued the left -leaning populism that trade union leader Danny Roberts favours.
Another factor that would stem the 'rolling tide', as Sharpe-Pryce describes it, of populism in Jamaica is the scarcity of resources to finance the social reform programmes. While Michael Manley had bauxite levy revenue and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has petrodollars, Gregory points out that Jamaica's "current debt realities would restrict any serious ability to deliver in that area."
Furthermore, according to Sharpe-Pryce: "As the cases have always been, the inability to resolve the social and economic problems of the masses will erode the support of the populist government sooner or later."