For Free and Fair Elections
On the long and winding road to electoral reform in Dominica two crucial issues were brought to the foreground last week: voter identification cards and campaign finance regulation.
On the issue of identification cards and the cleansing of the ridiculously bloated voters list, we learnt that the government of Dominica was planning the implementation of a multi-faceted identification card, part of a larger project of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and funded by the European Union. At the moment we know very little about the proposed system and hence we reserve our opinion on whether it will solve the vexing problem of the extremely inaccurate voters list.
The other topic discussed in the press recently was the issue of election campaign financing. Apparently, Edison James, the political leader of the United Workers Party (UWP) attended a sub-regional meeting organised by the Organisation of American States where the topic received prominent attention. That discussion was timely because we believe the regulation of campaign financing is crucial to the conduct of free and fair elections. Therefore, it should be the people's business where the parties get their money and how much they get.
As we stated in an earlier editorial, we believe that the most crucial lesson Dominicans should have learnt from the 2012 United States presidential election was the corrupting influence of unregulated campaign financing. Throughout the elections campaign there was the concern from independents and Democrats that the rich Republicans were purchasing the elections. The New York Times reported that Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont revealed: "So far this year 26 billionaires have donated more than $61 million to super PACs… (that includes) about $100 million that Sheldon Adelson has said that he is willing to spend to defeat President Obama; or the $400 million that the Koch brothers have pledged to spend during the 2012 election season."
In Dominica after the December 2009 general elections, opposition parties in particular raised the issue of electoral reform and stressed the absolute need for a better system of conducting general elections. But these politicians who clamoured for equal access to state-owned media, a clean voters' list and voter identification cards apparently forgot the insidious issue of the funding of political campaigns.
There is no doubt that money and politics are inseparable twins. Money determines who runs, who wins and ultimately how the winner governs. Almost everyone who 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 bill boards, 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 2009 campaign was the most expensive election ever held in Dominica. Unconfirmed reports indicated the Dominica Labour Party (DLP) alone spent more than EC$20 million on that campaign. That trend is likely to continue in the next election campaign.
So, as we stated earlier, we need to enact campaign finance laws and 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 the opposition parties coffers will determine the difference between the ruling Dominica Labour Party (DLP) and the other parties; not the quality of the candidates or polices, programmes and projects that they will take to the electorate.
On the broader issue of electoral reform, given the controversial results of the 2009 elections, we believe a complete overhaul of the electoral system is absolutely necessary and also much overdue. The system is broken and it must be repaired. If we genuinely believe in the principles of democratic society, elections in Dominica must be conducted using a reliable and accurate register of voters; non-resident electors must be identified; the names of deceased persons must be removed regularly from the register and voters must be registered in the constituency in which they normal reside.
Thus we are of the view that a multi-purpose identification card as proposed by Mr. Skerrit's government must contain crucial information about the potential voter. If the multi-purpose identification card does not reduce or eliminate electoral fraud, it will be useless for the purpose of determining the legitimate representatives of the people.
Earlier, Prime Minister Skerrit said his preference for the proposed national Identification card was the likely high initial cost of voter identification cards. That may be a valid reason, given the state of Dominica's economy, but Mr. Skerrit must consider the fact that the cost of disunity, acrimony, riots and demonstrations is many times higher.
But we also agree with the view that some form of national identification card can be a useful document in enabling citizens to access large numbers of benefits including health care and education as well as travel between islands in the region, when CARICOM decides to act on the promise of free movement of its citizens.
Because of its importance, we believe the government and the Electoral Commission could do much more to inform the electorate of the details of the multi-purpose card than they have done so far. Additionally, civil society should be involved in the process of issuing the card. There's no better way to remove all doubts that the system is the public's best interest and not the ruling party's.