Close Caribbean election watchers must certainly be noting the concurrence of electoral encounters and pandemic conditions.
In more than one instance, governments have not held out until the latest possible dates and have instead called elections well within constitutional limits but under conditions of closed borders and other measures. This was so in T&T which could have delayed the process until December. It is also the case with Jamaica, which last went to the polls on February 25, 2016 but holds its elections tomorrow.
Belize which has habitually gone to the polls early—a year short for three of the last four elections—holds its elections on November 1 when it could have waited until February 2021.
It also appears St Vincent and the Grenadines will go to the polls before the December 9 anniversary of 2015 elections. There is already considerable political mobilisation.
Suriname held its elections on May 25—a date fixed since its return to democracy in the late 1980s but changeable under certain circumstances.
Anguilla had its encounter on June 29 and, like Suriname, the Dominican Republic and Guyana, experienced a change in administration. In Anguilla, elections were held despite colonial advice to delay.
In St Kitts and Nevis, closed borders restricted the permissible practice of parachute voting by non-resident nationals.
Guyana, which also changed political administration, is another story on its own. Its March 2 regional and general elections set in train a series of events that continues to today. On Monday, for example, the losing APNU+AFC coalition filed an election petition challenging the highly contentious results.
As a media trainer, I have been fortunate to have come into relatively close contact with some key electoral players in T&T, St Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, Suriname, Guyana and yesterday, for the second time, in St Vincent and the Grenadines.
One of the key subjects we cover during these exercises is the near inelastic relationship between the standard of media practice and the quality of electoral outcomes, including perceptions of the legitimacy of the process.
The importance of this is heightened by the fact that in a growing number of countries—Grenada and Barbados being glaring exceptions—margins of victory have shrunk. There is an intensification of political polarisation and tribalism, and the performance of electoral boards has come under growing (and sometimes unjustified) negative scrutiny.
T&T is also not the only “50-50 country” in the region. Guyana’s current parliamentary balance is 33-31-1. In 2015, it was 33-32 in favour of APNU+AFC which lost in March. Jamaica’s 2015 elections gave the JLP a 32-31 majority. In St Vincent and the Grenadines in 2015, the ULP won 8 of 15 seats and the NDP 7. It was the same in 2010.
In Suriname, post-election coalitions are routine, except for 2015 when the NDP won a clear majority (26 of 51 seats) for the very first time. This year, Desi Bouterse’s NDP struggled with 16 seats, leaving Chan Santokhi’s VHP to lead a fresh coalition with 20 seats.
The Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) experience proves the point about media performance. This year’s elections were conducted minus voluntary media guidelines, the monitoring of adherence to them, and “refereeing” of the findings of an independent institution.
In 2015, guidelines were established, but a dedicated mechanism as had obtained since 2006, disappeared. The (now-ruling) PPP did not consider it a priority then, despite generous offers of international funding. When APNU+AFC took office, it too ignored this model, and an embattled GECOM simply did not have the time and space.
In Jamaica, the Electoral Commission has revised media protocols for election day media coverage to permit better coverage tomorrow. A good baby step forward.
In T&T, there is space for independent monitoring of a voluntary Code of Conduct for media and professional evaluation of journalistic performance based on such standards. Read the Election Handbook for Caribbean Journalists edited by Lennox Grant and myself for greater guidance on this.
This can help direct attention away from partisans focused on discrediting the work of professional journalists, and ill-advised judgments on the work of legacy media based on social media rumour, disinformation and sheer slander.
But as is the case virtually everywhere, tribal cleavages continue to trump reasoned application of mechanisms that help diminish conflict. It’s no different here. We are all left to pay a heavy price.