Sat | Aug 19, 2017

Martin Henry: Thanks for quality elections

Published:Sunday | March 27, 2016 | 3:00 AM
Martin Henry

Last Sunday, the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) and the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ) ran full-page advertisements thanking Jamaica for the combined efforts of all stakeholders that delivered a free and fair general election on February 25.

Jamaica should thank the ECJ and the EOJ for their role in cleaning up the electoral system and in delivering a world-class general election.

Things weren't always this way. In their chapter, 'Garrison Politics and Criminality in Jamaica - Does the 1997 Election Represent a Turning Point?' in the Anthony Harriott-edited book Understanding Crime in Jamaica, Mark Figueroa and Amanda Sives note that "high levels of blatant electoral fraud marred the 1993 election, leading the Electoral Advisory Committee, to consider 'whether in a number of constituencies one can really say an election has taken place or can take place because of the stealing of a high percentage of boxes and ballots.'"

They cited the then political ombudsman, Justice James Kerr, writing about the election fraudulence in the urban garrisons. Kerr said, "'It is in these parishes that intimidation, stealing of ballot boxes and interference with the electoral process reached unprecedented extent and brazenry that caused these elections to be labelled the worst since adult suffrage came to the country in 1944.'"

 

HIGH LEVELS OF CRIME

The ECJ-EOJ reported that "the 1993 general election was marred by extremely high levels of crime and violence". Fourteen constituencies were severely affected by the violence, both before and on the actual day of voting ... . Six constituencies reported having ballot boxes stolen." And a range of other irregularities took place.

"The 1993 election," the ECJ-EOJ further tells us, "also saw a marked continuation in an accelerating trend since Independence of communal or homogeneous voting, particularly in a number of inner-city urban areas of Kingston, St Andrew and St Catherine ... . In 1962, for example, there was literally [only] one box in the whole country in which the losing party got no votes. By 1993, for the parish of Kingston nearly half its boxes returned zero votes for the party that lost [and] 78% of the boxes returned 10 or fewer votes for the losing party."

Those fraudulent results of 1993 and of elections before and a few after were allowed to stand. Today those results wouldn't. Thanks to the work of the EAC/ECJ.

 

POWER OF THE CONSTITUTED AUTHORITY

The Constituted Authority, which is activated by the governor general for elections, now 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 the Governor General's Privy Council. The retired judge and the member of the Privy Council being appointed by the governor general in consultation with the prime minister and leader of the Opposition.

After the flawed 1976 general election, held under a state of emergency, the losing Jamaica Labour Party complained that "the devices used pointed conclusively to a scientifically organised islandwide system of bogus voting previously unknown in Jamaican politics". The party filed 15 election petitions seeking judicial reviews. Those petitions dragged through the courts up to the time of the next election in 1980. By-elections at parish council level and parliamentary level aggravated the problem of voting fraud.

The history of the ECJ tells us that the JLP's Edward Seaga led a process within the party to document specific instances of all the various types of malpractices that had occurred in recent elections and where they had occurred. The report was tabled in Parliament by the leader of the Opposition.

Mr Seaga then wrote to Prime Minister Manley demanding a reform of the electoral system. Capitalising on the heightened international exposure which an IMF agreement had brought the country, the Opposition threatened to boycott any future elections called before a meaningful reform of the electoral system. A major concern was that the electoral system operated under the control of a minister and ministry of Government. This had been the case under all past administrations.

Mr Manley had been in discussions with the National Executive Council of the PNP on the matter of removing the electoral system from the direct control of the government. He agreed that reform was needed and responded to Mr Seaga's letter inviting him to a meeting to discuss the issue.

The meeting agreed to establish an informal consultative committee between the political parties in Government and Opposition. The PNP appointed P.J. Patterson as liaison for PM Manley, Keble Munn the Minister of National Security and Electoral Matters and Dr Paul Robertson, the party's deputy general secretary. The JLP appointed Hugh Shearer as liaison for the leader of the Opposition, Senator Bruce Golding and Abe Dabdoub.

The survivors, Patterson and Golding, owe the country their recollections on this important matter. Mr Seaga has rendered his own account in his autobiography Volume 1, 'Edward Seaga - My Life and Leadership'.

That consultative committee recommended that the EOJ be transferred from being a department under ministerial control to an independent body under the oversight of an Independent Committee of Parliament. A Special Joint Select Committee of Parliament considered the matter and proposed the establishment of an impartial Electoral Advisory Committee (EAC) with three non-political selected members to be appointed by the governor general on the joint advice of the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition, two nominated members each from both political parties, and the director of elections as a non-voting member.

Munn and Golding together further hammered out the structure and operations of the EAC. It was agreed that Parliament would, by convention, take the advice of the EAC on electoral matters. That convention has held. It was later decided that the selected members would be appointed by agreement of the nominated members and only if they could not agree would the Governor-General step in. Selected members would also appoint the Chairman from among themselves, or the GG would.

The EAC-ECJ has documented its own twists and turns, ups and downs and achievements in re-engineering, cleaning and strengthening the electoral process in Jamaica to the world class standard displayed on February 25.The institution has even documented electoral practices and malpractices before its time going back to the establishment of a British colonial government here. This significant story must be more widely told as an important part of our political history.

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