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Election system in political spotlight

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Another round in the 20-year acrimonious political battle between the governing Unity Labour Party (ULP) andthe opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) has been launched, this time, the conduct of general elections being the issue. It follows an exchange of letters between Opposition Leader Godwin Friday and Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves.

Dr Friday had, two weeks ago, written the Prime Minister, listing what his party considered to be six problem areas pertaining to elections that need to be addressed. His letter had called for: (1) an earlier and more extended visiting period for international election observers; (2) the abolition of the 15-day special registration period immediately before elections; (3) the removal of leading election officials; (4) the establishment of registration centres in all constituencies; (5) eliminating discrepancies in the final Voters List; and, (6) preventing the illegal transfer of voters from one constituency to another.

His letter triggered a written response by Dr Gonsalves, refuting the allegations made in the NDP leader’s letter and accusing the NDP of “playing politics” with the letter and of maligning our electoral system. In turn, the NDP held a press conference, pouring scorn on the PM’s reaction. Strangely, on such a matter of national importance, the party leader was absent, raising questions about his leadership and who really is in charge. Perhaps it was thought that it would be more important to attend the Conservative Party conference in Britain!

While the cross-talk rages and political support is solicited, we must bear in mind that, whatever the perceptions, the crux of the matter is our electoral system. In every one of the Caribbean islands, this system comes under attack from those who are not victorious at the elections. If they succeed, or rather, when they succeed, very few do anything about it.

We had a glorious chance to deal with electoral reform as part of the constitutional reform discussion more than a decade ago. To its eternal shame, the NDP ignored the opportunity and, rather than engage and fight vociferously for significant electoral reform as part and parcel of the process, it chose to engage in cheap politicking. It brought them a hollow victory in the referendum, but left the same system of elections intact, and was followed by defeat not only in 2010, but in 2015 as well.

On both occasions, election irregularities were blamed. There is currently a case before the court, based on alleged election irregularities. Now, a letter has been written to the PM asking for changes; but what was the reaction when, for instance, it was proposed to set up an independent Electoral Commission with equal representation from both Government and Opposition? Would that Commission, with supervisory powers over the conduct of elections, not have been a more equitable arrangement, and a better body to which reforms could be proposed, than writing to a Prime Minister accused of being in power by virtue of electoral fraud?

So, it is not surprising that the Prime Minister should react in that way. But that does not mean that the rest of us must accept the political tug-o-war. The fundamental issue is whether we are satisfied with our electoral system as it is. Even if the NDP were irresponsible a decade ago, its case must still be examined on merit. Are there aspects of the electoral system which can, or must, be improved, for the benefit of us all? What about the special 15-day registration period… for example, how can we find a satisfactory solution, fair to all? How can we have an intelligent debate on the matter, devoid of the detestable personal attacks on the beleaguered supervisor of elections and staff? Is the system fundamentally sound, but in need of improvement?

We need a mature approach to this, not a partisan one; for, in this case, all we will get is supporters lining up on one side or the other, giving blanket support, and neglecting to examine the system and to see how it can be improved. That pains me most of all, for our political game just keeps us going around the merry-go-round. Forget the red herrings, ignore the rabble-rousing and trading of political blows, and ask ourselves, how best can we improve the system, if it needs to be so done, and done with broad consultation, devoid of political acrimony?

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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