Electoral Reform takes centre stage in 2018
Electoral Reform takes centre stage in 2018

Are we Really Going to Have General Elections Again without Basic Electoral Reform?

If the current trend continues, most likely Dominica will hold general elections again without implementing basic electoral reform. We make this prediction because general elections are due in less than 12 months and there is apparently no haste to get the process reformed before Dominican voters go to the polls again. Furthermore, the two major political parties, the ruling Dominica Labour Party (DLP) and the opposition United Workers Party (UWP) are miles apart on the major aspects of electoral reform. And in addition, if the Dominica Electoral Commission has a plan or a programme to implement these reforms before the next election, to the satisfaction of the majority of most Dominican voters, the Commission is doing a remarkable job of keeping that a secret.

However, there are three aspects of electoral reform that Dominicans should agree has to be accomplished in some shape or form before the Prime Minister announces the date for the next general elections.

Firstly, the extremely bloated voters list must be cleansed before Dominicans head to the polls later this year. The Organisation of American States (OAS) Electoral Observer Mission of 2014 clearly indicated in their report that it made little sense that there were72, 484 registered voters on the country's voters list when the country's population was 71,295 based on the 2011 census.

The OAS, therefore, recommended that the Commission should review and update the list according to Dominica's electoral laws. We are not sure what the Commission has been done to that end and how much needs to be done before the next general election.

Apart from cleansing the voters list the next crucial aspect of electoral reform is the issuance of voter identification cards. Over the last few years there has been a huge debate about whether a national identification card can, and should be used for voting, or whether a specific voter identification card should be issued. This debate has not been settled on and Dominicans do not know how they will be required to identify themselves before they enter the polling booth at the next general elections.

Apart from cleansing of the voters list and the issuance of voter identification cards, many persons are of the view that the holding of general elections without the enactment of campaign finance legislation will make the electoral system rather farcical. As we have stated in an earlier commentary, with its extremely bloated campaign budget the ruling DLP is not likely to be interested in the enactment of campaign finance laws. But that decision should not be left to the DLP alone; electoral reform must meet the needs of the vast majority of Dominicans.

On the issue of campaign finance legislation the Carter Center in its report of the 2002 Jamaica Parliamentary Elections stated clearly that in Jamaica, like other Caribbean countries, there were struggles with the perception of corruption in the financing of politics.

"The danger of corruption in campaign financing are of particular concern in a society such as Jamaica, that is simultaneously fighting the influence of illegal guns and drug money," the report said. "Strengthening and effectively implementing contribution or expenditure limits and disclosure requirements would help reduce the corrosive impact of money in politics."

Winnie Byanyima addresses the issue of money and politics rather neatly when she says: "Money doesn't just buy a nice car; it also buys better education or healthcare. Increasingly, it can buy impunity from justice, a pliant media, favorable laws, business advantage, and even elections. This, in turn, perpetuates the policies that allow a tiny elite to accumulate ever more wealth at the expense of the majority".

As we said earlier there can never be fair elections in Dominica, even if the voters list is cleaned and there are identification cards for voting, if one party is able to spend tens of millions of dollars in an election campaign and the main opposition party cannot afford even a minor portion of that amount. And in addition to an extreme large budget, remember the ruling party enjoys the whole-hearted support of the majority of the press and the vast largesse of the State's treasury.

That is why we keep calling for comprehensive electoral reform if the electoral playing field is to be level and fair. If this is not done, democracy in Dominica will be a farce because elections are citizens' only means by which they select their government. Jeane Kirkpatrick, scholar and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, says: "Democratic elections are not merely symbolic...They are competitive, periodic, inclusive, definitive elections in which the chief decision-makers in a government are selected by citizens who enjoy broad freedom to criticize government, to publish their criticism and to present alternatives."

A statement on the subject by the United States Embassy warrants quoting: "Democratic elections are competitive. Opposition parties and candidates must enjoy the freedom of speech, assembly, and movement necessary to voice their criticisms of the government openly and to bring alternative policies and candidates to the voters.

"Simply permitting the opposition access to the ballot is not enough. Elections in which the opposition is barred from the airwaves, has its rallies harassed or its newspapers censored, are not democratic. The party in power may enjoy the advantages of incumbency, but the rules and conduct of the election contest must be fair".

On the issue of electoral reform Catholic Bishop Gabriel Malzaire said in December last year that the matter is urgent and he called on all the parties to get the job done.

Apparently, the ruling party has not heeded the warning. Instead the DLP argues that "the electoral system is not perfect" and the Electoral Commission has approved a system for the introduction of ID Cards and cleaning of the voters list and Government has budgeted the necessary resources to get the job done. But that when Government has taken these changes before parliament for legislation, the opposition has vehemently protested forcing the government to withdraw the Bills. Government also argues that it has consulted various sectors of the population on the proposed changes to the electoral laws.

The problem with that argument is that the opposition distrusts the Electoral Commission; the opposition believes the Commission invariably performs the bidding of the ruling party. It is not an independent institution. And, we ask, why should a "Government" or a ruling party become the entity that "consults" on the changing of electoral laws and regulations?

We have said it before, and we will repeat the comment that the structure of the Electoral Commission is fundamentally flawed. Probably we should copy the Jamaican example in one essential aspect. When Jamaica was reforming its election laws it decided to establish the Electoral Advisory Committee "with responsibilities to protect the electoral process from the direct control of Government," said chairman of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica, Professor Errol Miller.

Probably Bishop Malzaire and other religious leaders should now guide the parties to the discussion table. Before it's too late.