Wed | Sep 20, 2017

Elections and the ECJ

Published:Sunday | February 7, 2016 | 2:00 AM
Martin Henry
Director of Elections Orette Fisher makes a point to Dorothy Pine-McLarty, chairman of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), during a press conference on February 4, 2014 at the ECJ's St Andrew office.
1
2

I got my news of the election date in morning newscasts and online the day after. What would I be doing in bed with the election date late at night, when there are more important domestic matters to attend to?

Media asked me to comment on the content of the speech. I coyly countered, was there anything added to the full-page Government of Jamaica "Thank you, Jamaica" advertisement appearing in both morning dailies with the prime minister dressed in her best orange business suit. Was there anything added to the JIS-produced GOJ supplement PR-ing '2015 Achievements', which appeared in The Sunday Gleaner on the best high-grade white news print?

The setting and announcing of a general election date, we are told ad nauseam, is constitutionally the prerogative of the prime minister. And yet the announcement keeps being made by a party leader at a mass political party rally locking down the busiest town centre in the country and bussing in the party massives. Why not from Parliament, by the prime minister, not the party president? Why not from Jamaica House, the seat of Cabinet and the Office of the Prime Minster?

I want, though, to warmly thank the prime minister for the shortest possible election campaign. Down to the legal minimum 21 days from the dissolution of Parliament and the 16 days from Nomination Day.

The leader used the Half-Way Tree party jam to appeal for a peaceful election campaign and for Jamaicans to refrain from political violence. She will mostly get her wish. Not because of the charisma of the appeal or the paraded strength of the leader. Michael Manley was stronger in every way. Edward Seaga, too, was stronger. Yet these two men presided over the bloodiest chapters in Jamaica's political history. The elder Manley, Norman, and his cousin Bustamante also sued for peace in election campaigns all the way back to the 1949 general election.

Jamaicans can now quietly go about their business during an election season, which is a big reason why I personally resent the blocking of town squares for mass political meetings. They can enjoy, or ignore, the shenanigans of the party circuses live or via the heavy media advertisements, which have almost zero impact on voter decisions.

I had to sternly advise two meetings, one abroad and one here at home, before the date was announced that we did not need to put our business on hold because of an impending election.

This normalisation of the country's politics is largely the doing of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ). There was a time, over most of Jamaica's political history from 1944, when political violence and fraud could, and did, in fact, pay some dividends. That's how and why the garrisons got organised.

How well do I remember the long bloody 1980 election campaign. I was 22. My family, registered in one constituency and then living in another, had to sprint across town and only chanced the crossing because my brother had a Ford Escort station wagon. The army had to abandon its battle fatigues and heavily patrol the streets of locked-down Kingston in its khaki semi-formals because fatigues had mysteriously gone missing from Up Park Camp and rumour had it that gunmen intended to disguise themselves as soldiers and wreak havoc on election day. The bloodletting claimed 880 lives that year, the highest murder toll up to that time.

HIGH BODY COUNT

Family living on Balmagie Avenue in West Central St Andrew, at the boundary between Tower Hill and Waterhouse, had to helplessly watch as their yard was used as a run-through for raiding parties from both sides before they were forced to flee as refugees. That constituency had one of the highest body counts in that political war.

During the 1976 election, the girl I would later marry but didn't know then had to flee Jones Town as a teenager with her family with nowhere to go, from 2B Asquith Street, now a part of the wastelands of the inner city, as nightly gunfire and Molotov cocktail fires advanced closer and closer to their tenement yard.

Then, in 1979, Michael Manley, president of the PNP and prime minister, and Edward Seaga, leader of the JLP and leader of the Opposition, agreed to the ECJ's precursor, the Electoral Advisory Committee (EAC), which constituted bipartisan and independent members. The purpose of the committee would be to de-tribalise the country's politics, driving down political violence and fraud, and to create a system for free and fair elections and elections free from fear.

The 15-point list of functions assigns to the Commission in law the management of the electoral process without the involvement of politicians save for the two from both sides nominated as commissioners. But the greatest power of this independent commission of Parliament is to halt and to void elections that are not deemed free and fair.

The Constituted Authority, which is activated by the governor general for elections, has the power to halt an election in any constituency, or to request the Election Court to void an election and hold a fresh one if there are malpractices. The Authority is composed of the four non-political selected members of the ECJ, plus a retired judge and a member of civil society appointed by the governor general in consultation with the prime minister and leader of the Opposition.

There is precious little documentation of this important history of the EAC-ECJ. Not even its own website has anything useful.

Two still living persons, P.J. Patterson, for the prime minister, and Bruce Golding, for the leader of the Opposition, along with Keble Munn and Hugh Shearer, worked out the details for the establishment of a seven-member EAC with three non-political members to be selected by the governor general after the usual consultations, and two each from the governing party and the opposition party.

Will Mr Patterson and Mr Golding please speak to us about this very important part of our national history and their role in it before they will have to forever hold their peace?

The country owes a huge debt of gratitude to the EAC-ECJ for building a robust system for free and fair elections and elections free from fair. This history must be captured and made known. Current ECJ recommendations to the Parliament for the regulation of campaign financing and for state financing of political parties, unpopular at the moment like opposition to roadblock political party rallies to announce election dates, will improve the system even more.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.