Sat | Sep 19, 2020

Editorial | Holding elections in a pandemic

Published:Saturday | August 15, 2020 | 12:33 AM

So the political parties are off on a short sprint to reach Gordon House. The September 3 polls may well be remembered as the Pandemic Elections, like none other, conducted in a way to improve public safety without threatening the integrity of the ballot.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the conduct of elections all over the world. Indeed, traditional campaign activities have been drastically curtailed to limit the chances of spreading the novel coronavirus. As at July 26, as many as 50 countries had held national elections or referenda. Many others have postponed polling.

The effect on incumbents defending their stewardship and newbie politicians wanting to prove their worth is still being calculated. What we already know is that for the most part, voter participation has been low. We also know that new methods have had to be found to campaign, to reach party workers, and to educate polling officials. We have also learnt that there is a high price tag to conduct an election during a pandemic.

A look at CARICOM sister state Trinidad and Tobago, which recently held a general election without holding one rally, may provide a glimpse into what our upcoming campaign may look like: wearing masks, maintaining social distancing in public areas, restrictions on gatherings, temperature checks, and sanitisation requirements.

It is a fact that campaigning can influence voter behaviour, and rallies are the lifeblood of electioneering. However, in this 2020 election season, there will be fewer opportunities for candidates to deliver fiery speeches from platforms, mock their opponents, or move about in constituencies.

KEEP A DISTANCE

It will be a campaign where everyone will be forced to keep a distance – no hugs, no kisses, no embraces, no dancing. All physical opportunities to show love and affection will have to be abandoned. It will be left to traditional media via discussions, debates, and advertising and social-media platforms to convey messages and shape perceptions about the candidates. Herein lies the challenge to the elderly and less tech-savvy voters to navigate the World Wide Web.

Overall, we do not think it is such a bad thing, the way this pandemic has reshaped electioneering into becoming a virtual affair, except, of course, that the Internet allows publication without attribution and calls for fact-checking.

We do see an opportunity for the electorate to actually assess candidates in a sober way. Here is a moment to look around and see exactly what your representative has done over the last four years. Does he or she deserve another term? Has your representative been a good steward? Is the opponent a better candidate?

VOTER PARTICIPATION

The Opposition People’s National Party (PNP) has been scathing in its assessment of the Government’s performance. It has highlighted the poor health of the economy, citing the fact that the Jamaican dollar has tumbled to its lowest level and continues to be in free fall.

It has continually criticised the economic model, which, recently, has been battered by closures and cutbacks. The PNP has called out Prime Minister Andrew Holness and his Government on allegations of corruption, cronyism, and lack of accountability. For many voters, corruption has given them the greatest cause for disillusionment.

Meanwhile, the Government argues that much progress has been made. Mr Holness cites new road and bridge constructions, credit facilities for small businesses, lower unemployment and poverty levels, cruise-ship facilities in Port Royal, and management of the COVID-19 crisis among some of his Government’s achievement.

Voter participation in general elections has been on a downward spiral, and we fear that the current pandemic may keep more people at home on September 3. We would remind fellow Jamaicans of their civic duty to cast their vote.

For voters to exercise franchise is an essential barometer of the legitimacy of any electoral process. Given that the input of local and international observers will be severely affected by COVID-19 restrictions, all must be done to guard the integrity of these polls. Those who cherish democracy must stay vigilant to ensure that legitimacy is not sacrificed.