By Peter Richards
CMC Caribbean Correspondent
KINGSTON, Jamaica, Feb 24, (CMC) – Jamaicans go to the polls, tomorrow, to elect a new government – the outcome of which could determine the political future of either of the two main party leaders here.
Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, at 70, may well find that defeat could open the door to younger aspirants to the leadership of the ruling People’s National Party (PNP), while the 43-year-old Opposition Leader, Andrew Holness, knows he may have more than his former Finance Minister, Audley Shaw, to deal with if he leads the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) into a second consecutive defeat at the polls.
Both Simpson Miller and Holness had similar routes to the leadership of the government that both lasted a year in the first instance.
The PNP leader first came to office in 2006, when then Prime Minister, PJ Patterson, decided to quit active politics; and Holness took over the government in 2011, succeeding Bruce Golding, who resigned in the aftermath of the Christopher “Dudus” Coke extradition affair to the United States, where he (Coke) was wanted on drugs and gun running charges.
In the last general election, Simpson Miller led the PNP to a 42-21 seat victory over Holness, who this time around, is predicting that the JLP will win “more than 33 seats”.
The relatively short campaign has been marred by acts of violence, resulting in the death of at least four people, but the police have said, the murders were not politically motivated, even though three of the killings occurred during the JLP official launch of its campaign.
Both parties have been blaming each other of seeking to influence the outcome of the elections through illegal means, including buying out voters and using the names of “dead people” still on the official voters list that contains an estimated 1.8 million people.
Holness took the claim of voter irregularity a step further, telling the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC) that one of the strategies now being employed by his opponents, is the payment of cash to voters who are willing to have their index fingers stained with “ink” so as to be turned away at the polling stations “having voted before.
“We have legitimate concerns which we have written to our political ombudsman about,” he told CMC, adding, “I think this is the most insidious thing that has emerged to corrupt the electoral process and I have written to the political ombudsman to ensure that they are vigilant and that anyone found doing this is prosecuted to the full extent of the law”.
But PNP campaign spokesman, Delano Franklyn, dismissed the JLP allegations accusing it of carrying out a strategy to steal the elections. He told reporters he is confident that the law enforcement authorities, as well as the electoral officials, will ensure that Jamaica’s reputation for free and fair elections will be upheld.
“The People’s National Party does not subscribe to any form of fraudulent voting,” he said, insisting that the party’s machinery will ensure of that.
The Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ), while it has acknowledged that attempts might be made to undermine the electoral system, strongly believes that it has put in place various mechanisms to safeguard the process.
Director of Elections, Orrette Fisher, told CMC that Jamaica has a continuous registration programme that also allows it to remove from the list the names of dead people as well as those who have migrated.
“You have people who move around and therefore are no longer residing in the area where they were registered. So we would be required from time to time to have a verification of the list,” he said adding that he would not totally agree with the allegations being made by the political parties that “dead people would vote”, but was satisfied that “we have systems in place that would prevent that”.
Among the systems being utilized by the EOJ is a picture identification process, with pictures of voters on the list placed at the near 8,000 polling stations.
Opinion polls seem to suggest that the outcome of the elections will be a very close one.
The latest RJR-commissioned Don Anderson poll has found both parties in a tight race. The poll, which was conducted from February 13 to 16 among 1,093 people, with a margin of error of plus or minus three per cent, showed the PNP with 30.8 per cent popular support, slightly ahead of the JLP on 27.5 per cent.
“I feel very, very good. There is a level of enthusiasm and positivity that is evident among PNP workers and supporters and the uncommitted are breaking for us, so we are very confident,” PNP campaign director Dr. Peter Phillips said.
An earlier poll commissioned by the Gleaner on February 4, 5, 6 and 7, found the PNP four percentage points ahead of the JLP with 33 per cent of those polled by Johnson said they would vote for the PNP, while 29 per cent said they would vote for the JLP.
A University of the West Indies (UWI) research team is projecting that the PNP would win as many as 40 seats. Using the CHAMPSKNOW forecast, the academics said the PNP has a 56 per cent chance of winning compared to the JLP 44 per cent. However, JLP’s General Secretary, Dr Horace Chang, said although the intellect of the researchers should be respected, the projection is subjective and based on research done late last year.
Trinidad-based political scientist Derek Ramsamooj said a privately commissioned poll he conducted shows support is leaning towards the JLP. According to Ramsamooj, the poll conducted between February 9 and 21 found that 51.76 per cent of electors in these marginal seats would vote for the JLP and 48.24 per cent for the PNP.
There are at least 15 marginal seats that political commentators say could also determine the outcome of the elections.
Both parties have launched their manifestos promising to stimulate an economy still heavily reliant on policies that must have the backing of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which has been a significant feature of economic life here for nearly a decade.
Last month, the co-chair of the Economic Programme Oversight Committee (EPOC), Richard Byles, said he was confident that Jamaica would pass the IMF’s 11th quarterly test once tax revenues continued to be ahead of target and the primary surplus target had been achieved.
He said the Committee has observed a trend “where tax revenues have not just been hitting the IMF target but are surpassing it” and that tax revenues were J$6.2 billion for the first eight months of the fiscal year (April to November 2015), which was 2.5 per cent ahead of target. The collections were 14.2 per cent or J$31.9 billion above the similar period in 2014.
“It’s a new phenomenon and I guess a welcomed one. If we can keep that up, I think that we will be in good stead for the December test,” he said.
At the end of December last year, the Net International Reserve (NIR) stood at US$2.44 billion, which was US$800 million in excess of the IMF target of US$1.64 billion for end-December.
The PNP has campaigned on the progress of the local economy and is promising jobs for young people, to implement further tax reforms and raising the threshold applicable for personal income tax. It said the “focal point “of the new Simpson Miller administration, “will be to grow the economy”.
“We are confident that we have the right mix of policies to jump-start the economy in an environment of stable prices,” the PNP said, adding “these initiatives should provide the jobs in the numbers needed, reduce poverty levels at a more acceptable pace and improve the quality of life for our people”.
Simpson Miller says “Jamaica stands at the intersection of hope and history,” telling voters there is a basis for hope.
“We have laid the foundation for substantial and sustainable economic growth. The basis is being laid for First-World education and training; First-World level of job creation, business start-ups, and wealth creation.
“Beyond the customary noise or exuberance of an election campaign, there is the national and international acknowledgment that at long last, Jamaica is getting its social and economic house in order,” Simpson Miller said.
The JLP for its part has said that its “Property Partnership” document is a concise yet comprehensive outline of the plans and programmes it will pursue and implement to improve over the next five years.
“The Jamaica Labour Party’s 2016 Manifesto is a bankable and realistic plan of action. It is our road-map to prosperity. The manifesto reflects the desires of the people of Jamaica and will go a far way is achieving Jamaica’s strategic interests.
“Our 2016 Manifesto is a literal blueprint for the development of this country. We have been thoughtful and deliberate in putting our plans together and have every confidence that our proposals will bring marked improvements to the lives of the people of Jamaica,” Holness said.
He added that the JLP has been going around the island with its message of hope and prosperity.
“We have been to virtually every community in this country at one point or another over the past few months. We have heard the cries of the people and have witnessed first-hand the hardship and suffering that confront them.”
The highlight of the 10-point economic plan is the one designed to remove the burden of income tax on workers whose basic annually salary is estimated at J$1.5 million with Holness saying 118,000 Jamaicans benefitting as a result.
“Raising the income tax threshold is not a new policy of the Jamaica Labour Party. In 2009 during the recession we used it as a counter-cynical stimulus for the economy,” he said, adding “that is what kept the economy afloat by returning to consumers some amount of purchasing power that time of recession.
“That helped to keep demand going in the economy and prevented a total free fall of our economy,” he told CMC.
But critics say the new income tax policy this time around is doomed to failure and could further retard the economic progress that has been achieved over the past few years.
Finance Minister Dr. Peter Phillips has referred to the tax policy as “a puss in bag” and has warned that the measures the JLP is considering will have an adverse impact on the budget of a total of J$100 billion.
Phillips said he shared the sentiments expressed by financial analyst Ralston Hyman that the plan represents “emotional and politically popular undergraduate theorizing”.
Phillips noted that the implementation of the proposal would mean that a worker who earns just over $1.5 million would then have an income tax liability of $225,000 more than the person earning $1.5 million.
“In order to address these distortions and inequities, the exemption would have to be applied to all taxpayers,” said Phillips.
But Holness does not share that sentiment insisting “the economic principle behind it is sound.
“What we are trying to do is give a short sharp stimulus to the economy and we believe that by increasing the threshold to this level it will have a positive impact on economic growth.
“It will also have a positive impact on…the general consumption tax (GCT) so you would see more revenue coming in from the consumption side of taxation even though we would have removed the 12.5 billion dollars from the income side of taxation”.
Shaw has also weighed in telling party supporters the tax break for workers, such as teachers, police officers, nurses and firemen was designed to stimulate the economy.
“We are ensuring that Jamaica comes out of the situation where we have the most inequality situation in the world, “Shaw said, adding that the JLP wanted all low income workers to have “a better way of life.
“We are mindful that those (earning) between 1.5 to five million will have to pay taxes but the threshold will remain at J$600,000…but as soon we get into office we will review that.
“Our long term plan is to move away from income tax,” he added.
But the former president and chairman of the Private Sector Working Group on tax reform, Joseph Matalon said that the proposal, in its present format, was inequitable and distortionary.
Matalon, in a full page newspaper advertisement, labelled the proposal “unworkable” in its current form, saying, it would cost more than J$31 billion.
“It’s a revenue loss” he said, adding that it is simply unaffordable in the context of the current economic reform programme endorsed by the IMF.
But Holness maintains the initiative is sound, adding “we have consulted with several local and international experts in the field and they all think it is the best way to stimulate our economy”.
The Jamaica Gleaner newspaper, the oldest publication here, in an editorial on the tax issue noted that Holness “has a job of exorcism to do if discerning people are to be convinced that Beelzebub isn’t hiding in opaque numbers” adding “the devil, they say, is in the detail”.
But the JLP has found an ally among at least one opposition party. The National Democratic Movement (NDM) while voicing support for the initiative said there is concern about the implementation.
“It is something that we believe can work,” NDM President Peter Townsend told the Jamaica Observer newspaper.
We have concerns about how it will be implemented, but we endorse the principle and believe it’s workable, and we refute the argument of those who are critical of the proposal of phasing out personal income tax and replacing it with an equitable GCT.”