Caribbean electorates: Not for sale

By Sir Ronald Sanders
 
BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Thursday December 8, 2011 –
General elections in St Lucia and Guyana on November 28 have raised serious questions about the financing of campaigns and the unfair use of state resources by governing political parties to gain an advantage over their opponents.
 
In St Lucia, it is alleged that a significant portion of the United Workers Party (UWP) campaign funds came from Taiwan.  The UWP was the ruling party at the time of the elections and the then leader of the Opposition and leader of the St Lucia Labour Party (SLP), Kenny Anthony, had engaged in a public row with the Taiwanese Ambassador over his blatant interference in the electoral politics of the island.
 
In Guyana, it is claimed that the ruling Peoples Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) outspent its three rivals by a sizeable margin in the elections campaign. 
 
International observers from the Commonwealth and the Organisation of American States (OAS) commented unfavourably on campaign financing in both countries. The OAS Observer Mission in St Lucia pointedly called for legislation, including strengthening the Integrity Commission and auditing and reporting mechanisms, and it noted that “Saint Lucians have no access to information regarding campaign financing by the parties”.  In Guyana, a similar observation was made by the Commonwealth Observer Group who said “the requirement for declarations of election expenses by parties after the election is not adhered to and the law in this regard is largely symbolic”.

“High spending – while it may have captured a small number of voters – is no longer a decisive weapon”–Sir Ronald Sanders

Local observer also raised concerns that both the UWP in St Lucia and the PPP/C in Guyana abused their positions in government to exploit state resources to bolster their positions during the period leading to the elections. 
 
What is significant is that despite the fact that the ruling parties spent more on their campaigns and manipulated state resources to boost their prospects, the opposition parties did extremely well.  In St Lucia, the SLP defeated the UWP overwhelmingly to form the government.  In Guyana, the opposition parties, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) with 40.8 per cent of the votes cast and the Alliance for Change (AFC) with 10.3 per cent enjoyed enough support to deny the PPP/C the overall majority in the National Assembly that it had since 1992.   Consequently, having secured 48.7 per cent of the voter turn-out, the PPP/C, although it won the Presidency on a plurality of the vote, has had to form a minority government.   Of the 65 member National Assembly, the PPP/C has 32 seats and the combined opposition has 33 with 27 held by APNU and 6 by the AFC.
 
The Commonwealth Observer Mission in Guyana also criticised the bias displayed by the state-owned media for the ruling party.  It said the Media Monitoring Unit analysis indicated “overt bias in state-owned media in favour of the government and ruling party” and added “state-owned media has a higher moral responsibility to serve the interests of all citizens, particularly as in some parts of the country it is the only media available to citizens”. This phenomenon is not unique to Guyana. In other parts of the Caribbean, the state-owned media is increasingly controlled by ruling parties for party political propaganda and to deny opposition parties a voice. But, again, it is noteworthy that despite government control of the state media, the opposition parties in Guyana gave the ruling party a robust fight.  It is a warning to all ruling political parties that restricting democracy by muzzling state-owned media will do them more harm than good in the judgement of the electorate.
 
In St Lucia, the SLP has formed the government and Kenny Anthony is Prime Minister while the UWP and its leader, Stephenson King have been scattered in the wind of change ushered in by a dissatisfied electorate.
 
In Guyana, the new President, Donald Ramotar – elected on a plurality of the vote (as the Constitution provides) not an overall majority – has formed a minority government made up of PPP/C members only.  This has created a great deal of bitterness among the supporters of the main opposition party, the APNU which is a combination primarily of the Peoples National Congress founded by the late President, Forbes Burnham, and the Working Peoples Alliance founded by the late historian Walter Rodney.  Whether this new arrangement will work in Guyana is left to be seen.  Certainly, the combined opposition parties have an opportunity to bargain with the minority PPP/C government over the areas in which money will be spent and how.  They are also in a good position to insist on parliamentary oversight committees that will closely examine the operations of key ministries.  And, in the final analysis, they could vote against the Government’s Budget and bring government to a halt, thus forcing a new election.
 
Sir Ronald SandersDespite APNU street protests in the immediate aftermath of the Guyana elections – one of which involved Police shooting pellets at participants – APNU leader, David Granger, said on December 6 that the election results have cleared the way for the politics of ‘inclusionary democracy’.  He also stated that the APNU will “pursue our legislative programme to ensure that laws are enacted to provide jobs for our youth; to provide relief from the burden of taxation; to alleviate the suffering of our people; to expose and root out corruption and to eliminate discrimination and marginalisation”.
 
In looking at the issue of money in elections in its member-states generally, the OAS released a report on December 6 titled, ‘Politics, Money and Power: a Dilemma for Democracy’.  The report recommends “the creation of broader national regulations concerning the use of funding, the disclosure of political parties and campaigns donors and the creation of a fair and transparent competition in the campaigns”. But, getting these recommendations implemented requires determination by all political parties as well as concerted lobbying and action by civil society in every country.
 
Nonetheless, the failure of the two ruling parties in St Lucia and Guyana to win the elections overwhelmingly indicates that high spending – while it may have captured a small number of voters – is no longer a decisive weapon.   Big spending on advertising, musical extravaganzas and give-aways, and abuse of state resources by ruling parties will not buy an electorate that is dissatisfied with performance.   Click here to receive free news bulletins via email from Caribbean360. (View sample)

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sir Ronald Sanders. Sir Ronald Sanders is a Consultant and former Caribbean diplomat.