COVID and elections
It has taken just over a week for the official results of the 2020 general elections in Trinidad and Tobago to be announced officially. Thankfully, we were spared the embarrassing spectacle which was Guyana, spanning five months, or even our own protracted legal wrangling, lasting all of five years without any concession as to the futility of the continued legal challenges.
Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissesar has at last conceded defeat, with the clamour for recounts in fact only turning out to produce increased votes for the victorious PNM. This was a most humiliating experience emphasizing the correctness of those who dubbed her challenges “frivolous and vexatious”, to use legal terms.
The Trinidad and Tobago elections were the latest in a series conducted since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thus far in the Caribbean alone, elections have been held in Guyana, its neighbour Suriname, the Dominican Republic, St Kitts/Nevis and Trinidad and Tobago. In the first three named incumbent governments lost while in Trinidad and Tobago and St.Kitts/Nevis, both multi-island nations, the incumbents held on to power.
More elections are in the offing, in this region and internationally while COVID still effects its reign of terror.
Jamaica is next on the cards, just two weeks away. St Vincent and the Grenadines, from all indications, seems set to follow before year end, with even St. Lucia a possibility given that COVID effects are expected to last well into the new year. Internationally, New Zealand has had to postpone its scheduled polls by one month from September to October after another “spike” in the number of COVID victims, but unfortunately for an embattled US President, their Presidential and congressional elections in November are still on the cards, COVID or no COVID.
The pandemic has presented those countries staging elections with a number of challenges, in addition to the usual ones associated with conducting such polls. Some of these are positive in the manner which they impact on the conduct of the elections. One big plus has been to minimize the impact of the rabble-rousing, emotionally-charged campaigning on which so many politicians thrive. The restrictions on large gatherings and the need for social distancing have forced political parties to utilize modern technology and opt for virtual gatherings instead.
This has necessitated more emphasis on content rather than crowd appeal and will surely separate the sheep from the goats. Those with little to offer by way of solutions are bound to be cruelly exposed. No wonder some politicians in both Guyana and T&T resorted to cheap racial politics to hide their emptiness. We should not only welcome this development, but insist through our choices that even after COVID, the nature of campaigning must change for the better.
COVID is also forcing election officials to pay greater attention to both pre-election preparedness as well as conduct of affairs on Election Day itself. In this, public education will play an important part, sensitizing voters to respect the health protocols and emphasizing early preparations – registration, knowing the location of polling stations, etc. Then there is behaviour on the Day itself – wearing of masks, social distancing and the like. There are quite a few among us who will want to demonstrate resistance and defiance, hence the need both for education pre-election, but firm enforcement on Election Day itself.
Then comes the most troublesome part, that of the counting of votes and release of results. In closely-contested elections these aspects have been a boon for propagandists and trouble-makers. Given the gradual manner in which results are released, there is ample opportunity for rumour-mongering. It is worse now with social media, for the itching fingers of the anarchists are ready to click on the slightest rumour, or even rumour of a rumour.
These in turn can impact negatively on the perception of how elections are conducted and even the acceptance of results. There are those who, in Trump-like fashion, hype up supporters about electoral fraud, implying that the only way their party can lose is if there is fraud. Having bought this line and persuaded others to do so, the logical conclusion if your side is not victorious is to cry (“Cheat!”). Not for all the proverbial tea in China can you convince them otherwise.
There are still people today who go about after elections telling people about missing ballot boxes and all that crap. You also get situations as obtained in T&T where Prime Minister Rowley claimed victory before all the official results were announced. One can decry PM’s Rowley’s timing, but it has no bearing on the counting of votes. When votes are tallied, the totals are immediately transmitted by party agents to their headquarters and the parties themselves know the results before the rest of us. Whether they should disclose these publicly before official results are known is another matter.
All these tell us that in a situation where COVID restrictions are bound to result in a more lengthy process, public responsibility is paramount. All involved – politicians, campaigners, election officials and the media, must play their part. Fanning flames of partisanship recklessly can lead to violent confrontation and conflict. There is much we can gain out of the effects of the pandemic by way of our own conduct and lifting our game.
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.