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PETER WICKHAM: Time for reform?


PETER WICKHAM: Time for reform?

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AS ELECTIONS APPROACH both here and in Grenada it is unsurprising that discussions about electoral reform have also come to the fore and recently one professional I regard highly questioned my silence on these matters. This is a reasonable question, which is also to some extent unfair since I have touched on these issues quite frequently in the past as a careful reading of previous articles would demonstrate.

I do strongly believe that electoral reform is necessary (regionally) and have risen to the occasion whenever called upon by any Caribbean government, NGO or international agency to do so as is reflected in various writings in the public domain. The fact that these efforts often go unnoticed is symptomatic of one of the main reasons I do not speak to these issues more as I appreciate the extent to which a reform agenda needs to be driven by a political process to which a leader and government subscribes enthusiastically.

There are two cases in point that arise and the first of these is my association with the reform process in St Kitts and Nevis (post 2004) in an advisory capacity. I enthusiastically seized this opportunity to expose the Electoral Reform Committee under the chairmanship of Deputy Prime Minister Sam Condor to several of the critical issues and solutions regarding Caribbean elections. Certainly, the vast majority of these proposals were not acted upon; however, the process demonstrates the extent to which reform will ultimately be driven more by political interest and less by altruism.

Although I was not directly involved in the process in either Trinidad and Tobago or Grenada, I publicly identified with progressive initiatives that emerged in both places which spoke to some of the more critical issues of constitutional and electoral reform. In Trinidad and Tobago, prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar introduced proposals to limit her term and that of any future prime minister to two terms (10 years) and so sought to introduce fixed terms, along with a “run-off” requirement as part of her ill-fated constitutional reform exercise.

I publicly supported these initiatives in these pages and at least one public forum hosted by the People’s Partnership in Trinidad, because I considered this a good start. Certainly, one would have liked her proposals to have included the proportional representation option that the COP canvassed for but this should not have been seen as an indictment of what was on the table.

The situation in Grenada was similar where the opposition NDC wanted to put proportional representation on the table and having failed to do this adopted a hostile stance against a government that was willing to impose term limits on the prime minister and introduce the type of electoral management body that is commonplace in virtually every other Caribbean country. In this instance, I also supported the initiatives and lamented the failure of every single one of them. This act of self-flagellation by the Grenadian public is also demonstrative of the limitations our constitutional infrastructure imposes on the process of electoral reform that politicians will have to skilfully navigate.

We come now to Barbados which distinguishes itself because there have been “0” initiatives to deal with any of the electoral issues notwithstanding a declaration made on election night in 2013 by the Prime Minister that the troublesome issue of election finance would be addressed “urgently”. Subsequent to this call, the OAS mounted a forum (in which I participated) and re-presented model legislation which this Government has ignored along with all the other recommendations that have come from commentators and agencies.

Amid this, I have argued and often singularly, that the approach being recommended is fundamentally flawed since is differs little from what exists and is not being enforced. Notwithstanding, I have continued and offered ideas which employ both the carrot and the stick and speak to the larger issue of what election money is spent on and less about who donates what. Regardless, I and others have failed to capture the attention of those empowered to make changes.

Electoral reform will therefore not happen in Barbados before the next elections and this has nothing to do with a lack of effort on the part of commentators. The process must be initiated and driven by a willing political directorate that sees a benefit and moreover has the political capital to drive the process. In the absence of these two ingredients, well-intentioned persons who offer ideas now are engaging in an exercise in futility.

Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email: [email protected]