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How free and fair are our elections?

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Normally when we speak of elections being free, we are referring to the freedoms inherent in the electoral process. Such freedoms include the freedom of speech and expression of electors, parties, candidates and the media; freedom of association; freedom of assembly; freedom to register as an elector, party or candidate; freedom of access to the polls by electors, party agents and accredited observers; freedom to exercise the franchise in secret and freedom to question, challenge and register complaints or objections without negative repercussions.{{more}}

Without hesitation, we in St. Vincent and the Grenadines can say that our elections have always been free in that sense. From another perspective however, the word “free” also suggests that we gain something without having to pay for it.

The campaign budgets of the two main parties in these elections are estimated to be in the millions of dollars. For a small third world country, this is a great deal of money. We are told that the same situation obtains throughout the region whenever elections are called. The money is used for t-shirts, transportation, performing artistes, posters, election memorabilia, mass media advertisements, printing of manifestoes and inducements to the electorate.

In their bid to secure campaign funds, party leaders may make alliances that tie their hands once elected or re-elected to government. Sometimes, when we observe individuals or other entities inexplicably getting away with questionable activities, the explanation may lie in an investment made “up front”. Note the irony here.

The challenge of raising “sufficient” campaign funds in order to make one competitive may well act as a deterrent to well-meaning citizens who feel they have a contribution to make.

We have over the years heard about politicians making gifts of money, building material, groceries, whatever, to secure the votes of electors in the constituency they wish to represent. Do these elections appear to be any

different?

What we need to consider is that when an elector accepts a “gift” from a politician in exchange for a vote, the politician may feel under no obligation to help that person or fulfill campaign promises after the election. Why should he or she? He or she has already paid for the vote. The transaction is complete. No further payment is required.

This campaign season we have heard stories of candidates who have already spent their gratuities and others who have mortgaged their homes in order to play the game. Small wonder some politicians may look at the time spent in Government as a period when they need to recover and make a profit on the money expended during the elections.

The Unity Labour Party administration recently published and invited public discussion on draft integrity and anti-corruption legislation designed to safeguard against illegal enrichment by our representatives while in Government. This is good. We need to move swiftly to enact these bills. In addition to this, our Caribbean nations should also consider looking at campaign financing legislation to make the whole elections process more transparent. This type of legislation will make it mandatory for parties and candidates to disclose the source of their campaign funds and will also limit the contribution any one donor is allowed to make.

However, simply introducing the legislation will not in and of itself solve the problem. The United States has for years been tinkering with the details of such legislation in an effort to promote transparency in the electoral process.

A “fair” electoral process is one where the ‘playing field’ is reasonably level and accessible to all electors, parties and candidates. This includes equitable access to financial and material resources. Therefore, with unequal levels of financing from party to party, how fair can we say is the electoral process?

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