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Cure or prevention? Electoral system in SVG

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For the last five months or so, politics in St Vincent and the Grenadines has not been able to move out of the shadow of the issues surrounding the December 2015 general elections, narrowly decided by one seat, and the allegations of misconduct, particularly in the contentious Central Leeward constituency.

These have led to an election petition filed by the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP),{{more}} currently before the Court, and a boycott of Parliament by the Opposition as part of a general mobilization campaign to have the results of the elections reversed, at least in two constituencies. The supervisor of elections has been specially targeted, with an ongoing picket of her offices.

The governing Unity Labour Party (ULP), meanwhile, has strongly refuted the allegations of fraud, and has pointed to the clean bill of health on the conduct of the elections issued by the international observer teams. Of these reports, the one from the Observer Mission of the Organization of American States (OAS) has evoked the most interest, with the Opposition even publicly stating that one member of that team was prepared to come and testify to wrongdoings in Central Leeward.

It therefore put the spotlight on the final report of the OAS team, so much so that when it was released last week, it set in train once more renewed mobilization efforts on the part of the NDP. That party has seized on the report, or to be specific, some specific observations within it, as justification of its charges of electoral fraud, and has gone so far as to call for criminal proceedings against some electoral officials.

Strangely, some sections of the local media, with notable exceptions, as in the case of SEARCHLIGHT, have chosen to give prominence, not to the fundamentals of the report, but to the section dealing with Central Leeward, and to highlight the Opposition’s call for criminal proceedings to be brought. It gives the impression that the OAS Report has concluded that the election was fraudulent, and moreover concentrates on the political outcome of the case, still before the Court.

This is very typical of our approach to most issues, an approach which focuses on finding immediate cures rather than long-term solutions for any weaknesses in our system. But I will come to that later.

In reality, the OAS Report, (and SEARCHLIGHT has published the Internet link so that readers can scrutinize it themselves), concluded fundamentally that the general election was conducted “without any major incident”. But, lest the supporters of the ULP break out in rejoicing, the report made some grave observations about the events in Central Leeward. It pointed out that there were “some disquieting issues” there, among them, the “incorrect application of seals” on some ballots, the “absence of the Presiding Officer’s stamp and initials on some ballots”, and ominously, “possible partiality of the Returning Officer”, who, it concluded, seemed to pay scant attention to complaints from NDP representatives.

These are serious observations, which must be taken into consideration as we move to fix the electoral machinery. However, it is conveniently forgotten that the report pointed out that the Mission “did not discern any fraudulent or other actions” at the Final Count, “which could have materially affected the outcome of the vote which the ULP candidate won by 313 votes”!

The Court will be the final arbiter on the matter, but for us, addressing the obvious weaknesses is even more crucial in the long term. We have to use the 2015 experience, and those of several elections before it, to spur us to fix the electoral system, so that we avoid this constant postelection bacchanal.

The OAS Report made some specific recommendations as a start. It urged regular updating of the Voters List; initiating and/or strengthening of training progammes in women political leadership to address the far from healthy situation, where there were only seven female candidates out of 43 overall; better training and strict guidelines and procedures for workers at polling stations; the establishment of an Independent Electoral Commission; the regulation of campaign financing to avoid undue influence on elections by ‘big money’; and, the institution of public education programmes.

One, of course, cannot ignore the current Central Leeward controversy, but in the long-run, it is what we do about the system itself which is going to be more important. I can’t help but once more recall that the Constitution reform process of 2003-2008 had raised many of these issues, but just like today, we were more concerned about short-term political outcomes, than long-term solutions, so the proposed 2009 Constitution, and the Report and conclusions of the Constitution Review Commission were rejected.

We opted for apparent cure rather than prevention. If we continue like this, looking to gain partisan political capital, on both sides, we are bound to have many more such controversies.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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