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Electoral environment needs political climate change

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The agonizing wait of the voters in Antigua and Barbuda for a date for the holding of general elections there is now over. Last week, Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer, exercising his constitutional right, announced that the elections will be held on June 12, with nomination day being May 21. It ended months of bickering, court challenges and demonstrations by the opposition Antigua Labour Party (ALP), demanding that the elections be held speedily.{{more}}

Spencer led his United Progressive Party (UPP) to its second successive victory in a contentious election on March 12, 2009, gaining nine of the seventeen seats at stake, with just over 50 per cent of the votes cast. The ALP had forthwith challenged the election of three UPP candidates in court, winning initially only for the decision to be overturned by the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court. Spencer continued to face strong challenges both in Court and politically from the ALP during his term of office, including on issues such as the realignment of boundaries, ever a major issue in Caribbean elections.

Those court challenges were cited as reasons by PM Spencer for the delay in holding the poll, a charge dismissed by new ALP leader Gaston Browne, who has ended the dynasty of the Bird family at the helm of the ALP. With mounting economic problems facing Spencer and the people of Antigua and Barbuda, Browne’s ALP has been gaining ground, based on polls from respectable pollsters and this encouraged him to step up the pressures for an early poll.

The protracted political battle in Antigua and Barbuda has attracted regional attention, as has a similar clamour in neighbouring St Kitts/Nevis where the Denzil Douglas administration steadfastly refuses to entertain an opposition motion for a vote of no-confidence. Both situations have been referred to the courts, as has become customary in regional political disputes, and this has had bearing on political resolution of the issues. At least now, the Antiguan electorate will have the opportunity to decide on the matter and it is to be hoped that so, too, will the people of St Kitts and Nevis.

There is hardly an election in the Caribbean these days the result of which is not challenged by sore losers, sometimes with good reason. Foremost among the bones of contention have been, issues such as the voters list, coanstituency boundaries squabbles, matters concerning the conduct of the elections and behaviour of election officials, including the Supervisor of Elections. But there are other, very critical ones which have real bearing on the outcome of elections.

A very crucial matter, for instance, is that of party political funding, often leading to charges of bribery and vote-buying. The parties on both sides of the political fence hurl accusations at each other, but little is done to halt this nefarious practice, whereby those with financial resources, locally and even more cynically, persons from outside, use their money to try and influence outcomes in their favour.

The continued political bickering over the conduct of general elections should tell us by now that we need comprehensive political and electoral reform, just as much as constitutional reform is required. But for all the noise we make, we balk at real solutions, preferring the “bassa-bassa” of political opportunism and leading our people into fruitless battles. The Organization of American States (OAS), for instance, has put forward a number of proposals and suggestions for electoral reform, including the critical one of party financing. This writer has tried to publicize those proposals, but for our political class, they remain very much on the shelves.

We continue to clog the courts with all sorts of legal challenges, rather than try to arrive at consensus on relevant and democratic governance systems. We would not let go of the coat-tails of the Privy Council law lords, refusing to trust our own legal luminaries. Yet, when it is convenient, we don nationalist garbs and pretend to be defenders of regional sovereignty. The time has long passed for us to end these charades and to assume our responsibilities. Our electoral environment is tainted by the lack of political climate change. It is an urgent task which we must undertake.

renwickrose0@gmail.com

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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