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Curb Election violence



The voters in two disaster-hit Caribbean countries: Haiti, racked by earthquake, floods and a deadly cholera outbreak, and our own St. Vincent and the Grenadines, badly damaged by hurricane Tomas, will over the next three weeks go to the polls to choose a new government. Neither country has recovered from the destruction suffered, but constitutional provisions and political necessity dictate that even in the midst of their plight the people must choose.{{more}}

Haiti is a special case for which neither the Haitian people nor the international community has been able to find solutions. The cholera outbreak has been decimating a population already stressed out by the ravages of successive natural disasters, attendant hunger, malnutrition and homelessness, as well as political divisions leading to ongoing outbreaks of mass violence and crime. There are United Nations “peacekeepers”, but even these are unable to maintain but a fragile peace, and this Sunday’s Presidential elections will proceed in a far from calm atmosphere.

To what degree this volatile atmosphere will influence the conduct of the poll, it is difficult to say, and the 200-odd observers from the Organisation of American States (OAS) will have more than their hands filled to monitor the voting in that country’s 1,485 polling stations. There are widespread allegations of fraud, made all the likelier because so many people are still homeless and living in relief shelters. The situation is best summed up by one observer who opined that the names of the 230,000 people killed in the earthquake earlier this year are still on the electors’ list. “They are going to vote for sure,” said the wife of one presidential candidate, but many of the 1.3 million homeless living in camps may find themselves unable to do so – the dead will vote but the homeless cannot!

St. Vincent and the Grenadines has also been disaster-struck, and its voters must put that aside and go out to choose a new administration on December 13. But our country is no Haiti. Not only is the scale of disaster far smaller. We have a history and tradition of democracy and peaceful resolution of political battles. From time to time, notably in the 1960s, 1979, and in the election campaign of 1994, there have been violent incidents. But by and large, our elections have been peaceful affairs, spiced with all the picong and political bacchanal which characterize Caribbean politics.

We have had our share of disputes, too, about the conduct of elections. Indeed there are few elections in the region where the loser has not cried foul. Yet our electoral system has stood the test of time. Those making accusations of fraud when in opposition become themselves accused of it when they accede to office, and the game of musical chairs continues. Our courts have resolved the major issues.

That is not to say that our electoral systems are foolproof, nor are there not irregularities. However, in spite of all the hullaballoo by the politicians, the conduct of our elections has gained successive pass-marks by outside observers, even as administrations have changed. There are existing mechanisms for settling disputes. It is to be regretted, though, that the initiative originally taken by the Christian Council several years ago to try and secure commitment by the political parties to a clean and peaceful conduct of elections has petered out and that there is no local institution so entrusted with that responsibility.

This places greater responsibility on the leaders of the respective parties and their candidates to not only behave in an exemplary manner, but to exhort their supporters to do so as well. The recent attacks on civilians in Marriaqua and Chateaubelair represent dangerous developments in our body politic. They are to be strongly condemned by all, not in any tongue-in-cheek fashion, while blaming “the other side” for the attacks. A joint condemnation by the two aspirants to the highest office and a joint appeal for a peaceful campaign is not too much to ask of them. Political violence, especially against innocent civilians exercising their freedom of association, is a blot on our collective record.

We also call on our media houses, the radio stations in particular, to rein in those whose inflammatory language and gross disrespect for the rights and person of others with whom they disagree can serve as incitement to those easily influenced to commit violent acts. Our politicians, too, on their political platforms must guard against the tendency towards “bad-Johnism” (and “bad-Janeism”, since some females are equally guilty). There is no good to be gained along that road. Curb the political violence, in deed as well as in word.