Behind the Ballot Box
“Politicians are like bad horsemen who are so preoccupied with staying in the saddle that they can’t bother about where they’re going” – Joseph Alois Schumpeter
Ensconced as I am in the parish of St Philip, I eagerly await the next elections which are constitutionally due in 2018. The vote in a modern democracy is supposed to be secret, hence how we vote is not something that we share with the public and certainly if we do so, it is done anonymously.
I have voted in Barbados on several occasions and I will share with you a secret. Unlike some who vote purely on ideological grounds, for family reasons, out of loyalty or randomly or irrationally, when I have voted in this country I am most definitely not one of the above. I am not a passive voter, and definitely not a loyal voter. I can best be described as an unsystematic voter, which means that, like the volatile voter, I do not cast my vote as passive and loyal voters do. So I have voted for both the BLP and the DLP, and on the last two occasions for the same victorious candidate in the parish of St James. However, like a good citizen who has relocated, I will have to change my registration in time for the next election so that I cannot be accused of election fraud.
I think that we can all agree that the citizens of a democratic society must have the opportunity to participate in the electoral process of deciding who to vote into public offices without fear or favour. Anything short of this must be regarded as undemocratic. Therefore, free and fair elections, which are about choice and participation (free), impartiality, non-discrimination, and equality of participation in voting (fairness), as well as an independent and impartial electoral management body (EMB) to administer the process, are absolute necessities. Free and fair elections are therefore considered as standard measures of credible elections.
Equally, we can agree that democracy is not simply about the vote and that there are numerous elements of the electoral environment that can render the vote unequal and elections unfree and unfair, notwithstanding the credibility of the electoral process on polling day.
I have already dealt with the issue of party and elections financing in a previous article. Unfortunately most of us take the administration of elections very lightly, but the Elections Commission (EC) has a huge responsibility, which, if managed ineffectively can have disastrous consequences for the credibility of the process and for the country.
In many states in the Commonwealth Caribbean, the governing electoral body is the elections commission whose sole function is to ensure that throughout the election cycle, it is governed by credibility of the process. The responsibility of most election commissions therefore includes voter registration; appointing and training registration and election officials; management of the electoral roll/list, the settlement of electoral disputes in conjunction with the courts; registration of candidates, publishing and distributing the list; establishing and enforcing rules on campaigning, access to the media; ensuring security of the voters, the candidates, and the polling stations; collecting information on all voters; processing the data onto voter identification cards and correctly distributing such cards; producing election materials; printing and securing the ballot; delivering the election materials to the appropriate sites; voter education; as well as managing polling day itself. Some of these ECs hold the responsibility for demarcating electoral boundaries, and, as in the case of Jamaica since December 2015, the regulation of political parties.
So given the role of such an august institution, every citizen should be concerned about its independence and the following questions should always be considered:
* Given the importance of elections what should constitute the basic tenants of an independent and impartial electoral management body?
* How should the elections commission be constituted in order to ensure that the electoral processes and election cycle are marked by independence and impartiality?
These questions are central to the discussion of electoral management bodies (EMB) in the Caribbean. Certainly such institutions can be partly insulated from the influence of the environment, especially the political, by creating laws and regulations which must be rigorously pursued, but the institution itself cannot be entirely separated from broader socio-economic and political issues.
Moreover, it is near impossible to divorce the work of the elections commission from the commissioners themselves for they bring with them their own value systems and biases.
But a genuinely independent election administration is not only key to the achievement of free and fair elections, it is important to ensuring some element of both horizontal elite accountability and legal accountability. The extent of the independence of the elections commission ranges from highly independent to not at all independent. While some election management bodies can be described as non-independent because they are embedded in the executive branch through a ministry, others enjoy a greater level of independence.
We have the semi-independent electoral body which is usually located within the civil service under the supervision of an autonomous body established especially for that purpose. Independence from government is critical to enable the EMB to undertake its varied responsibilities with a relatively high degree of impartiality. The second type enjoys the greatest level of autonomy as it is generally located outside the civil service and is sometimes accountable to either the legislature, the judiciary, or head of state. But in the Caribbean what we typically have is the party representative model and this has implications for the impartiality of the election management body whether perceived or real.
This is precisely what defines the Electoral and Boundaries Commission of Barbados. Established in 1985, the five (5) member Electoral and Boundaries Commission comprises individuals who are appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Indeed, three of the five commissioners are appointed on the recommendations of the Prime Minister.
Additionally, where they exist, and this includes Barbados, the independence of the elections commissions from the government in power is frequently under threat and, regrettably, far too many commissions in the region are dominated by ruling political parties.
Further, the international benchmark by which such independence is based, calls for fiscal autonomy, durable tenure of office by commissioners protected by the constitution, an autonomous structure free from interference by the government or any political party, motivated commissioners, impartiality, an inclusive appointment procedure of the members after consultation with various stakeholders, professional competence of staff, transparency in decision making processes and the capacity to make and enforce decisions.
A look at the Barbados commission would suggest that there is much to be done in order to achieve this standard of good practice. If we examine the reports of the various electoral observation missions of the Commonwealth Secretariat and the OAS, one of the typical recommendations is the reorganization of these commissions to guarantee a greater degree of independence from government. And some of them with the support of both organizations have indeed reorganized in some ways. But Barbados unfortunately has not benefited from any international observation mission, nor for that matter, does there exist any domestic observer group which can monitor the process and provide an impartial report to the EC.
Certainly one of the issues that causes reflection is the fact that as the ECs are party representative models, whether or not they function impartially will always cause some consternation. So we have the case of the former Chairman of the Barbados Electoral and Boundaries Commission Philip “Jimmy” Serrao moving almost seamlessly from that institution to being the campaign manager of the Barbados Labour Party. Serrao himself apparently dismissed criticisms by the Prime Minister as “a lot of junk”. Not so Mr Serrao! But he is not unique in that department for we also saw the former Director of Elections Danville Walker (until 2007) nominated by the Jamaica Labour Party as its candidate for the 2011 general elections.
Ghana, which is a relatively new democracy, having only consolidated itself following the victory of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) in 2008, is a showcase for African democracy. Once appointed, the members of the EC enjoy permanent tenure until retirement. The commission’s expenses are also charged directly to the country’s Consolidated Fund. The EC has become one of the most powerful and effective on the continent and continues to reform after every election in order to strengthen the electoral process, internal processes and capacities.
That Ghana has remained relatively peaceful after each highly contentious but successful successive election irrespective of the election disputes, is a reflection of the strength, credibility and thus legitimacy of that commission. And this is significant given the strong political divide, decades of military rule, fairly new political parties, strong men with tremendous charisma (for example the mystique of Jerry Rawlings) and the ability to thwart the democratic process and a politicized ethnic divide that poses serious problems for the country. Yet in the midst of all of this, the EC has prevailed and while much of this is owed to the structures which have been put in place, there is absolutely little doubt that the reputation of its chairman – a man whom I have had the pleasure to meet on my two presidential and parliamentary observation missions to Ghana in 2008 and 2012 mounted by the Commonwealth Secretariat – is a major factor.
Simply put, Dr Kwadwo Afari-Gyan (recently retired at age 70) is spell binding. Spell binding because of his knowledge, his sense of justice and his impartiality and persuasive abilities. A man capable of standing up to a powerful president and equally powerful even with young political parties on the brink of eruption into violence. But then again he enjoyed tenure until retirement!
An interesting innovation of the EC was the establishment of the Inter-Party Advisory Committee (IPAC) in 1993. IPAC brings together representatives of all the political parties and the election authority together in regular meetings to discuss preparations for the elections and proved to be an important mechanism for opening up dialogue between the political parties and the election authority and among the parties themselves. At its regular monthly meetings, which are closed to the public and the media (to facilitate frank exchanges), every registered political party is free to send representatives at which they share their concerns with the EC. Equally important is the fact that the commission shares its election plans and programmes with the IPAC for comment and input. That dialogue and transparency are of tremendous value in cementing democracy in the country.
Though the EC is not compelled to implement the decisions of IPAC – since it serves in an advisory capacity only – its existence played a critical role in minimising conflict and post-election violence in Ghana following the very close 2012 presidential elections. I watched/observed Dr Kwadwo Afari-Gyan skilfully and firmly remind the political parties that they had agreed to only the use of biometrics for the elections and therefore ought not to speak of its breakdown and lack of alternative recourse (which ought to have been the preferred option) in some polling stations. That was sufficient to stay the parties except of course for their right to judicial review.
So of course I have my concerns about the institution in Barbados, especially as it has failed to make any meaningful and constructive suggestions on reforms that would strengthen the electoral environment in the country. But how can it, if it is often led by politicians and card carrying members of political parties. As some political scientists have suggestion, the overriding imperative should be that electoral administration not be subject to the direction or potential manipulation by the incumbent officials or ruling party.
Until next week…
“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” (Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the USA)
(Cynthia Barrow-Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.)