Beginning anew the electoral reform debate
Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit made a statement last week on Government's plans, or suggestions, for reforming the electoral system in Dominica.
But even the most inflexible Dominica Labour Party supporter will probably admit that the statement by Prime Minister Skerrit was hopelessly inadequate and non-specific given the enormity of the challenges confronting the Dominica Electoral Commission. However, to look at the brighter side of that situation, let's add that that statement was probably the first step on the long journey towards repairing our faulty electoral system. And, as usual, first steps are always tentative and unsure.
In his introductory remarks at a press conference on Wednesday 23rd June 2015, Mr. Skerrit said the Dominica Labour Party Government that he leads "is confident that the electoral laws of Dominica and the election process as a whole has always produced elections which are free and fair and the results truly reflect the wish of the Dominican electorate".
Is that really accurate, Mr. Skerrit? So, if it ain't broken why are we fixing it? Although we may concede that elections in Dominica have been free in the broadest meaning of the term, we have argued on many occasions in this newspaper that elections in Dominica will never be fair until there are substantial changes to campaign finance regulations. In fact, these regulations do not exist at all right now. Without campaign finance legislation, the electoral playing field will never be even. But in his statement Mr. Skerrit did not mention the need for election campaign financing regulations.
Almost everyone who has witnessed political campaigns here will attest to the fact that it takes large amounts of money to run these events. Over the past few years, for instance, the two major political parties spent tens of millions of dollars on billboards, radio, television and newspaper advertising; the bussing of supporters to mass rallies (that now resemble massive fetes); paying air tickets for persons from the Diaspora to travel here to vote, and on campaigning from house to house and village to village. In fact, the 2014 campaign was the most expensive election ever held in Dominica. Unconfirmed reports indicated the Dominica Labour Party (DLP) alone spent more than EC$40 million on that campaign. No one knows who financed the DLP campaign; we make the same observation about the opposition United Workers Party (UWP) campaign as well. If one party spends $40 million and another just two or three millions on a campaign, is this a fair election?
So, as we stated many times, we need to enact campaign finance laws and then enforce them. Otherwise the political culture of corruption will continue to destroy citizens' faith and confidence in their elected officials. It is our view that the level of funds in parties' coffers will always determine who wins elections.
The view that money tends to corrupt the political process is described by Wellington Ramos of Belize who wrote in the Caribbean Net News that "Two of the most dangerous things that can happen to our democracy is to allow people with money to pay our citizens to vote for them to assume office and for people with money to use their funds to run for office even though they are not capable and competent to carry out the duties of the office they seek".
Undoubtedly, money and politics are inseparable twin brothers. Money determines who runs, who wins and ultimately how political parties govern. Almost everyone who witnessed political campaigns here expect upcoming campaigns to be even costlier and yet few persons know the source of all that money: is it from drug dealers, rich businessmen, foreign governments, the Columbian drug cartels, the Chinese or the Russian mafia? Who knows and who cares!
Additionally, in his statement to the press Mr. Skerrit mentioned the contentious and probably illegal practice of political parties paying the transportation costs for Dominicans overseas to travel here to vote during elections.
Mr. Skerrit has proposed that his Government will amend the law pertaining to the importation of voters. He said that the law on bribery will be reformed to reflect that the "transportation of electors or supporters is lawful unless such transportation of electors or supporters is provided for the purpose of inducing persons to vote for a particular candidate and or a party when otherwise they would not vote for the candidate in question."
How can anyone verify that the provision of air ticket by the DLP, for instance, did not influence me, the voter, to vote for a particular DLP candidate?
But that suggestion by Mr Skerrit is consistent with the DLP's view that giving "something for something" – purchasing plane tickets in exchange for votes – is not bribery.
But prominent legal minds like former Chief Justice of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, Sir Brian Alleyne, have described the provision of transportation to get people from overseas to the polling stations is illegal. It would be a different matter, he suggested, if a fund was established to facilitate voting generally and available unconditionally to all eligible voters in the Dominican Diaspora.
In addition, in his statement at the press conference, Skerrit proposes a review of the list of electors to ensure that only those voters according to the laws of Dominica are entitled to vote and or remain on the list. We have no problem with that.
We have not heard the opposition UWP's response to the Prime Minister's latest statement on electoral reform and we hope that is not an indication that opposition officials are sleeping on the job. As we stated a few weeks ago, we wish that His Excellency President Charles Savarin and the Electoral Commission will seek inputs from the representatives of all Dominican groups on the electoral reform process - not only from the ruling DLP.