Pause and reflect

Congratulations to the Democratic Labour Party on recapturing the government in the February 21 general election.

Now that the election is over, it is as good a time as any to pause and consider some election related issues that we must confront as a country if we are to preserve the fragile democracy that we treasure.

Over the years, Barbados has earned a fine reputation for the conduct of free and mostly fair elections. I say “mostly fair” because the government-owned media has always tended to be less than balanced, with the degree of partisanship varying from administration to administration.

We are all aware of the medium of television as a powerful method of persuasion because of its visual nature and because it requires the viewer to be more passive than other media. It is therefore a very powerful tool of influence.

It is obvious to all that the freezing out of the Opposition’s views on CBC-TV had reached unprecedented levels under the current DLP regime. The almost exclusive portrayal of the views of the governing party, which we have observed in recent times must be a cause for concern and indeed consternation.

I often wonder why the Opposition does not make a big issue of it because the Government’s policy undermines its (the Opposition’s) chances of reaching the public via this highly influential medium and therefore its chances of influencing that audience.

The Government’s granting of a radio licence to the DLP to make election broadcasts outside the context of the rules of election broadcasts under the purview of the Electoral and Boundaries Commission is another alarming development. Giving one party an unfair advantage in this area is unacceptable and, quite frankly, should have been punished by an enlightened electorate.

Unfortunately, however, the electorate is not as astute and vigilant as it ought to be. Fair elections are the bedrock of our democracy, and it is a tragedy that we, as a voting public, are apparently ill-equipped to be “strict guardians of our heritage” and “firm craftsmen of our fate”.

Constituency councils are also designed and structured to give an unfair advantage to the governing party. Council members are appointed by the minister and it can hardly be expected that he would appoint persons other than party supporters, and certainly not Opposition supporters.

We have had the unseemly situation where a chairman of a constituency council resigned to contest the election on behalf of the governing party. Will he take back up his former position now that he has been narrowly defeated at the polls?

Will he use the position to enhance his chances of winning next time around? What about the case of the constituency council operating out of the office of the parliamentary representative for the constituency?

These developments are scary because they have the potential to entrench one party in government for decades as happened in Guyana under the late Forbes Burnham. These practices are manifestly unfair and strike against the very foundation of our democracy.

Finally, in the just completed election, votes were openly bought and sold for cash and other merchandise such as electronic items. The Attorney General sought to imply this was an Opposition tactic, but I know for sure that this was done connected to the ruling party as well. In one case, young men were sent out to loudly spread word that “money down at the office”, to use the exact words I heard these young men use.

And, many people waited in line to get their share.

Most readers would hardly believe whose constituency office this happened at last Thursday, but that is beside the point.

It is profoundly disturbing that we will never know to what extent “voting for cash” might have influenced the outcome, one way or another, of what was the closest election in our history. How sad and how disgraceful!

It is beyond belief that politicians on both sides of the fence and some segments of the population would be so cynical as to treat the sacred vote as a commodity. Don’t they consider that “our brave forefathers sowed the seed” with blood and sacrifice to guarantee us the right, through the ballot, to determine how we are governed?

In summary, our process has become so corrupt that there is a need, before it is too late, for Commonwealth and Organisation of American States observers to oversee everything we do with respect to our elections.

They should have an unrestricted remit to look into everything, from fairness of access to communications media, to the structure and functioning of government agencies that impact on electioneering, to election finance reform, to third party advertising as well as our Election Day practices.

The time has long gone when we could rely on our reputation that was hard earned but which, sadly, no longer represents our reality.

It is high time that our Augean Stables get a thorough cleaning.

— David Brathwaite

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