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More Caribbean political bacchanal

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Politics in the Caribbean is never out of controversy and political bacchanal. The task of operating a political system not of our own creation and the very small size of our populations lend themselves to constant personality clashes, big storms in tiny teacups and misplaced priorities, which turn out to be a drag on our progress and development. We end up stumbling from one political crisis to another, sometimes with more than one of these occupying our attention.{{more}}

Currently, the countries of Grenada and St Kitts/Nevis are grabbing the negative limelight. In the case of the former, the embattled government there is fighting for its very survival, facing a parliamentary no-confidence motion, the second such one in just three months. Further north, the twin-island federation of St Kitts/Nevis has been rocked by three significant events of national proportions over the past month.

St Kitts/ Nevis: Shame and Disgrace

Let’s take the case of St Kitts/Nevis first. Before the meteoric rise of the young Grenadian superstar Kirani James, it is St Kitts/Nevis which was regarded as the flag-bearer for the OECS in international track and field. Its most outstanding athlete, sprinter Kim Collins, winning several medals at various global championships, including a precious gold in the 100 metres at the 2003 World Championships. His success spawned a growth in athletics in his native country, put it on the international sporting map and brought pride throughout the federation, as well as the OECS in general. Hopes were high for more Kittitian glory at the London Olympics.

Sadly, this was not to be, for those dreams disappeared in a row between Collins and his athletic officials over his reported “disappearance” during the Olympics, which led to a lot of dirty linen being washed in public and the withdrawal of his accreditation to the Games. Just before this unfortunate turn of events, another top Kittitian athlete, female sprinter Tameka Williams, was sent home in disgrace even before the games began, for a potential drug violation.

True to form in the Caribbean, these incidents took on national significance, with that country’s Prime Minister, a visitor to London during the Games, being dragged into the fray and even allegations of political implications, with Collins himself being alleged to harbour political ambitions. He has since denied these allegations.

But before these storms could subside, the twin-island federation was struck by a much bigger political storm, which has grave implications for its governance. Last Monday, August 27, 2012, the Eastern Caribbean Appeal Court handed down a judgement of momentous proportions for politics and the conduct of elections there, and, by extension, the entire eastern Caribbean jurisdiction.

The Appeal Court had been asked to adjudicate on a ruling by Justice Lionel Jones in May this year, concerning the legality of the election of Mr Hensley Daniel to the Nevisian National Assembly in July 2011. Then, Mr Daniel of the Nevis Reformation Party (NRP) had narrowly defeated the incumbent Mr Mark Brantley of the Concerned Citizens Movement (CCM), by a mere 14 votes. However Mr Brantley had filed an election petition challenging the result, and Justice Jones had ruled in his favour.

Daniel and the NRP had appealed the decision, but the Appeal Court not only threw out their appeal, but strengthened the original ruling. The crux of the matter is that the names of some 203 persons had been removed from the electoral roll, that no opportunity was given to them to hear objections to their disenfranchisement, that the Supervisor of Elections failed to publish the revised monthly List of Electors and ignored requests from Brantley and the CCM to do so, and that, further, had ignored the directive from the Electoral Commission to restore the names.

The ruling is of significance for the conduct of elections throughout the region. Thus, in upholding the original ruling of Justice Jones, the Appeal Court said that the failure of the Supervisor of Elections to comply with his duty to publish the monthly List of Electors, as required by law, “was evidence of reckless indifference as to whether he was breaking the law and causing injury…” It went on to term his action as constituting “bias, bad faith and malfeasance”.

The Court also ruled that “non-compliance with a regulation will invalidate an election, if the non-compliance is so serious that it amounts to the election not having been conducted in accordance with the principles laid down in the Act (governing the conduct of elections), and that such non-compliance affected the outcome of the election”.

This ruling is one which should be taken seriously by all concerned, especially election officials and political parties and candidates conducting elections. They make it plain that justice and fairness, not political preference and bias must guide one’s conduct in such a serious exercise. In fact, the learned judges were particularly scathing about the conduct of not just the Supervisor of Elections (who, incidentally, has hurriedly resigned since the ruling), but also of the particular Registering Officer.

That judgement of the Appeal Court stated that the officer in question “had allowed her party affiliation to come before her statutory duties and her constitutional and common-law duties of fairness to all the voters of the constituency of which she had been given charge”. The Court found that her decisions were “tainted by political bias”, the officer having been a former agent for the NRP candidate and to have attended executive meetings of that party and provided technical advice.

In respect of the contention of the Registering Officer that she had ignored the directive of the Electoral Commission to restore the names removed from the list on the basis of legal advice, the Court has warned us all that “acting on legal advice does not excuse a wrongful act”. We all should bear this in mind.

(MORE NEXT WEEK)

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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