R. Rose - Eye of the Needle
January 24, 2020

Election Fever

THE ESTIMATES of Revenue and Expenditure for the year 2020 have been presented to the House of Assembly and the nation now looks forward to the details of how the nation’s dollars are to be raised and spent when the Budget is presented next week.

The estimated $1.186 billion budget comes in the context of anticipated general elections and may well be the last one to be presented before the Vincentian electorate gets the opportunity to determine which party will govern the country over the next five-year period, post-2020.

As such therefore, the Budget will of course be described by those on the opposition benches as an “election budget” and the Budget debate will take place in the context of the intense rivalry between the ULP and NDP with both sides virtually putting their political wares on show. It is one of the weaknesses of our political system that in the year immediately preceding scheduled elections, more attention is often paid by parliamentarians, on both sides, to political posturing with an eye on the next elections than to the policy direction and future of our country.

Will the 2020 debate be any different? Indeed will the expected election campaign be any different in 2020? Can we expect more responsible approaches, less personal hostility and more focus on policies and principles? Sadly, there is little indication that this will be the case. The hangover from the raucous campaigning of the past is still with us and we have not had a resolution to the election petitions filed after the 2015 elections.

This is definitely not a backdrop of hope for the future.

In addition to the normal cut-and-thrust of election campaigning, in recent years there has emerged a new spectre which is haunting the conduct of elections in countries big and small, all around the globe. This is the issue of political interference in the conduct of elections. It is not a new phenomenon for there are numerous examples of how foreign elements try to influence elections in one country or another to suit vested interests.

Quite naturally, small countries whether in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean are the most vulnerable and most targeted, but with the advance of modern technology, especially communication technology, even large countries with their developed economies are at risk. Readers would be only too familiar about the allegations concerning interference in the USA and United Kingdom.

In this context one can only view with alarm serious allegations made by Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves at his party’s recent Convention about attempts by foreign agents, to wit Cambridge Analytica, accused of tampering with elections in several parts of the world, to interfere in our own process here. He quoted extensively from a book by a former employee of that company, detailing how that company attempted to influence previous elections here on behalf of the opposition NDP.

Strangely, such very serious allegations have not, at least in my opinion, been treated with the seriousness they deserve. The allegations are further buttressed by the weakness of our system in controlling campaign financing, leaving our electoral system exposed to manipulation by foreign financiers and all sorts of unwelcome and shady elements.

Must we just leave this up to whether one believes or not? It is not enough to lay political blame at the feet of this or that party, we need action to, as far as possible, try to safeguard against outside interference and even to minimize the influence of money on the outcome of elections.

In the payback process, the entire country and our democracy, which we are all pledged to defend, become victims.

Many international bodies have been trying to grapple with this dangerous form of subversion.

The Organisation of American States (OAS) has itself made recommendations to its member states about addressing campaign financing and related election issues. But there is not enough public discourse on these matters, including in the media, and certainly in Parliament. It is not only our voters list and related matters which need urgent attention, electoral manipulation and outside interference are forms of corruption that we need to tackle with urgency and gusto.