By Devon Dick
LAST WEEK Tuesday, at a joint sitting of Parliament to honour P.J. Patterson, the country's longest- serving prime minister, the guest of honour lauded the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) of Jamaica as a model of bi-partisanship that has led to elections that are free and fair and free from fear and the envy of the world. Indeed, the ECJ has created more confidence in electoral results. However, there is still more that can be done to improve the commission.
The ECJ came into being in 2006, replacing the Electoral Advisory Committee (EAC) that had been established in 1979. The commission is an independent and autonomous authority that reports directly to Parliament. The objective of the commission is to safeguard the democratic foundations of Jamaica.
The commission comprises four selected members (previously three under the EAC), four nominated members, which include two persons nominated by the prime minister and two nominated by the leader of the Opposition, and the director of elections. As the commission is composed, the People's National Party and Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) have persons on the commission who are members of the House of Parliament. Therefore, the ECJ, in reporting to the Parliament, means that these members have two bites of the cherry. In classic terms, it could be the source of a conflict of interest. It means that both political parties should give thought to nominating persons to the commission who are not active politicians but who will ensure that neither of the political parties do not get an unfair advantage.
The commission has important responsibilities, including conducting local government and parliamentary elections; monitoring electoral funding and financial disclosure requirements; determining polling division and constituency boundaries; preparing the voters list; recruiting and training election day workers and voter education. It seems that based on the functions of the ECJ, it could benefit from a different composition of its membership, for example, adding the political ombudsman and a representative of Citizens Action for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE).
The role of the political ombudsman is to investigate any action by a political party, its members or supporters, if he believes such action constitutes a breach of the code of conduct or leads to bad relations between persons of different political parties. It seems that the political ombudsman should have a seat on the commission based on complementary roles.
Similarly, CAFFE has played a significant role in the conduct of national elections since 1997, the same year of the formation of the EAC. CAFFE is made up of civic-minded persons who are interested in the proper conduct of electoral campaign and electoral poll. Again, it seems that the commission could benefit from having a representative member of CAFFE. It means that the commission would be the body to deal with anything electoral and, at the same time, benefit from civil society and not only bipartisanship between political parties.
There needs to be a general widening of civil society in participation of governance apart from through political parties. When last was a 'non-active' politician selected to be chairman of a major political party? Frank Phillips, QC as chairman of the JLP, was the last one. Political parties need to have persons who are not active politicians in high office. Similarly, the Senate could benefit from representatives of civil society and not only appointees of political parties. But, then, most denominations are so clergy-centred that the head of their denominations have never and probably will never be a lay person although the laity are in the majority. This, too, needs changing.
The Electoral Commission of Jamaica has changed its composition before to allow independent members an equal say. Further changes could be the widening of the role of civil society in the commission.
Rev Devon Dick, PhD, is pastor of the Boulevard Baptist Church in St Andrew. He is author of 'The Cross and the Machete' and 'Rebellion to Riot'. Send comments to email@example.com.