Every few years, the Caribbean experiences a series of general elections that exposes both the strengths and weaknesses of our democratic electoral system.
In 2008, for example, elections were held in relatively short order in Belize, Barbados and Grenada, with the victors singing “the winds of change’’. Elections were held this week in St Kitts and Nevis. Later this year, national polls are expected in countries such as Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago and Suriname.
On the positive side, elections in Caribbean region are relatively violent-free; the rare exception was Jamaica of the 1970s at the height of the populist rule of the late Michael Manley and his democratic-socialist People’s National People and the US-backed Jamaica Labour Party headed by Edward Seaga on the opposite side of the political divide.
But, as we have noted, Jamaica is rather an exception. Thankfully, for the rest of the Caribbean, political differences infrequently escalate into physical violence. Invariably, it remains at the level of a few shouting matches and cuss words between party supporters and, sometimes, family members.
So, that’s a positive; although we believe that party leaders, between elections, should set a tone for more civility; not by setting aside differences but by engaging more rigorously in debates on plans and policies for developing the country, rather than on ceaseless mudslinging and on petty trash talking.
Credit, too, must be given to the voters of the Caribbean. Nothing is more condescending than to hear a politician or party, which has lost an election, referring to voters as “stupid’’ or “uneducated’’; far from the Truth. What voters do is exercise their democratic rights, at each polling, to either return — for how many terms they wish — the leader of their choice; or, when they so choose, as the people of St Kitts and Nevis did on Monday, to toss out the leader and party when they no longer wish them to run the country.
Those who regard voters as intrinsically “stupid’’, may wish to deny them of the right to elect — and reelect — a leader of their choice by restricting their options through so-called “term limit’’. In our view, there are few things as undemocratic in a free society as limiting people’s choices of who should lead their nation.
But where our system fails us in the region, each election, is in the aftermath of polls. In the past, it used to happen before and during elections; when little or no transparency existed and stuffing and stealing of ballot boxes and “voting’’ by the “dead’’ were quite common. These anomalies, more or less, have been corrected.
The major pitfalls today are in the post-election period. Our former British rulers, on handing over our countries to us, left no blueprint for the transition from one leader to another, and from one government to another. And, we have attempted to put no system in place ourselves.
Hence, what derives after an election is chaos, confusion and even rudeness; all this is often aided by public servants who are incompetent or political axe-grinders who either can’t wait for the outgoing government to leave, or are over-exuberant to see the incoming administration installed quickly.
So, you have someone who is a prime minister today; he/she loses an election tomorrow, and there is not as much as a ceremonial handover or briefing to his/her successor.
Perhaps, St Kitts and Nevis is a special case. But it makes no sense that a country with such a small voting population always takes so exceedingly long to officially announce the results of its elections.
On the occasion of Monday’s polling, many have been pointing fingers at the supervisor of elections in St. Kitts and Nevis, Wingrove George.
“From what I understood is happening is that the supervisor stopped counting votes in certain constituencies and this is rather frightening,” Grenada’s Prime Minister Dr Keith Mitchell said in commenting on the delay in announcing the election results.
Vincentian Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves said that his government was also disappointed that appropriate measures were not put in place to effect the final count of ballots, in accordance with the law and established practices.
Beyond the complaining and handwringing, Caribbean leaders must go further to establish and strengthen systems not just for smooth balloting once every four or five years; but also for more efficient delivery of services that the mass of the people depend on, day in and day out.
Services in crucial areas such as health, housing and transportation.