UWP party leader Lennox Linton speaks at the press conference
UWP party leader Lennox Linton speaks at the press conference

Did last week's discussion organised by the Electoral Commission bring Dominica any closer to electoral reform?

It didn't; but the opposition United Workers Party (UWP), the Electoral Commission (EC) and the Government of Dominica used the occasion to make their positions abundantly clear.

For instance, Gerald Burton, the Chairman of the EC, poured cold water on the opposition's hope that it would have some form of electoral reform before the next general election.

"I am of the view that we cannot allow our nation to descend into chaos over the failure of those of us charged with the constitutional responsibility to resolve the issue in a civil and mature manner," Burton said as he delivered the first presentation in the debate that included two members of parliament of the UWP and another two from the ruling Dominica Labour Party (DLP). The debate was moderated by Trudy Christian of the Dominica State College, a co-organiser of the discussion titled: "Electoral Reform: The Way Forward."

"I would not recommend that the (new proposed) system be used in any upcoming election", Burton said adding that there are dangers in using an untested system that could possibly malfunction and that could lead to mistrust of the results of the election.

Senator Felix Thomas the UWP candidate for Mahaut and Leader of the Opposition, Lennox Linton, represented the opposition UWP while Attorney General Levi Peter and Senator Francine Baron, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, represented the ruling DLP.

In his 15-minute presentation, Burton justified the need for a national public debate because, he said, "we appear in the main to be speaking or really shouting at each other rather than talking to each other. There appears not too much listening going on and as a consequence much of what each side is saying seems to get lost amidst all the noise".

Part of the "noise" that dampened the hope of a compromise was the extreme heavy presence of armed police at the Goodwill Parish Hall where the debate was being held.

"I am disturbed, saddened that I walked into the compound this afternoon at the invitation of the Electoral Commission to a function I thought in all honesty should include members of the public (and saw) 40 police officers armed and in army fatigue camped in a building in the compound to prevent members of the public without invitations from coming into this forum", said Linton. "I don't know how you feel about that but it is deeply disturbing to me."

Linton went on to accuse the Electoral Commission of relinquishing the responsibility for conducting free and fair elections to the executive of government, the ruling DLP.

"Members of the Electoral Commission must decide to perform their constitutional responsibility and stop aligning themselves with the ruling Dominica Labour Party," he said. "Electoral reform is not rocket science; it is not nuclear physics. The agenda is really very simple and we have done our best to try to oblige."

In 2008, the EC decided that it would reform the electoral system as a way forward to upgrade the system, Linton said.

"The word in 2008 was reform and then something remarkable happened," he said adding that immediately after the EC took that decision, the DLP changed one of its members on the EC.

"The 2008 reform process was hijacked by the operatives of the DLP," Linton said and added that to illustrate the success of that hijacking two election cycles later there has been no reform. In his presentation Burton seems to suggest that only a minor amendment to the Elections Bill that was taken to parliament in September 2018 was the major difference between the government and the opposition.

A clause that dealt with the issue of bribery and treating has been deleted (or "eliminated in the draft", as Burton put it) following protest by the opposition outside parliament. The unresolved issue is the proposed registration of voters overseas.

"It appears to me that there is bipartisan agreement that the proposed draft legislation and the system it proposes to introduce would effectively provide an efficient system of voting," Burton said. "There appears to be no political will to engage in a sober and reasonable type of discussion necessary to achieve compromise on the singular issue that appears to divide us."

For his part, Linton believes that "the ruling party's proposal to amend the Registration of Electors Act to provide for overseas registration of voters is totally unnecessary for the purpose of ensuring an accurate list of voters and should be withdrawn in its entirety."

"We want to be clear that there is enough time for the system to be reformed for the people of Dominica to have ID cards, at the very least a clean voters list before the next general elections".

From the results of the "Electoral Reform: The Way Forward" public debate, it is obvious that the Electoral Commission, if it wanted to resolve the electoral reform impasse, should have selected a closed-door -meeting of the main stakeholders and chaired by an experienced and independent mediator. At this stage Dominicans need compromise followed by quick action.