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De bell ring at last

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After all the bluff and bluster, all the challenges to call and charges of who “fraid to call”, the election bell has been now officially rung, and eligible voters will be able to vote on December 9 to decide the composition of the new 2016-2021 government.To be truthful, big crowd or not, the announcement of the election date itself turned out to be rather anti-climatic, given that the window had become so small that all and sundry had come within a day or two of its prediction. So, what was all the fuss about in the first place? It was just as well that we had approved the constitutional proposal for a fixed date. In practice, that is becoming just about the situation.{{more}}

It will be the fifth December election to be held in SVG since the country advanced to internal self-rule under the queer “Statehood” arrangements of 1969. Ominously, if the Opposition were to be superstitious, the previous four held in the final month of the year, in 1974, 1979, 2005 and 2010, were all won by the Labour Party or its successor, the ULP. That includes the famous “10-2-1 is murder” result of December 9, 1974. Neither the NDP, nor its predecessors has been able to savour a pre-Christmas victory.

But all of that will remain what it is, superstition or coincidence, when both parties face off in yet another of the heated contests which have generally ensued between them these past two decades. The same level of intensity, the same expressions of confidence on the part of both, are already evident, so one is inclined to ask what will be the difference this time?

The next three weeks are sure to provide the answer; so before we engage in wild speculation, it is more than useful to look at some factors with implications for the conduct of the elections. I am not talking here about the administrative and organizational arrangements which are the responsibility of the competent Supervisor of Elections and her staff. However, I note the resumption of allegations which seem to question her impartiality and competence, never a good sign in the run-up to elections, or any other time for that matter.

There is an absence of any respected civil society body to help in the establishment of an atmosphere for open contest, to organize debates, to hold the contesting parties accountable for their actions. In the past there have been attempts by the Christian Council to assume that role. Now, there is no shortage of takers for organizing school debates and public speaking competitions, but very few seem enthusiastic about taking on that responsibility on the grand stage.

It is not just debates or any accepted, even if non-binding, Code of Conduct; much, much more is at stake. One such major factor is the financing of political campaigns. Historically, this has been an area of contention, with opposition forces, of all stripes over the years, including the present one, and ULP/Labour, when in opposition, accusing the incumbent administration of both using state resources to influence the outcome, and of being financed by non-party sources.

Nor has this been confined to SVG alone. So widespread have been the allegations, and in some cases, proven occurrences, that the Organization of American States (OAS) has drawn up very useful guidelines governing campaign financing and the fair conduct of elections generally, which it has proposed to all the countries in this hemisphere. There have been few takers, either among governments or those in opposition.

This columnist has raised these matters repeatedly, with little response. We seem to always wait until we are in the heat of the battle to complain about the manifestations of a problem for which, in the circumstances, there can be no immediate remedy. I hope to have the opportunity to revisit this sore matter sometime before the elections.

Just as I had been feeling good about what seemed to be an effort to “lift the campaign”, we are facing the sad spectacle of spicy allegations about sexual conduct, again seizing the headlines. It is unfortunate and one of the downsides from the dominance of the social media. It will be hard to stay in focus when any one can start the buzz about non-issues and have them leap to the top of the agenda.

It is a matter raised during the recent elections in Trinidad and Tobago and on which this column has commented. We have to be careful not to make such non-issues shift our focus away from the major issues. Let the filth go down the sewers!

Just before this distraction, the NDP had commendably responded to accusations that it only opposes, but raising its game and making proposals for development. It must be complimented for those, which can now be debated and put under public scrutiny. Let’s not derail the upliftment!

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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