External observation of elections important to protect democracy and rights

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Sir Ronald Sanders is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto.

By Sir Ronald Sanders

CARICOM countries have been subject to intense scrutiny in the period March to August this year, relating to the conduct of general elections, maintaining democracy, and upholding the rule of law.

Elections were held in four countries – Guyana, St Kitts-Nevis, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.

No country was more closely scrutinized than Guyana by both vigilant domestic groups and watchful international observers. That is good for the elected government which gained strong legitimacy both at home and abroad.

Guyana’s elections were held on March 2 and could not be declared until August 2, largely because of actions by officials of the Elections Commission who are expected to be investigated in the coming weeks. The role played by the international community was a key factor in the declaration of a credible result of the elections, that led to the swearing-in of Irfaan Ali as country’s new president.

The most outstanding country, however, was Suriname. Not only was its elections process transparent and judged to be so by local and foreign observers, but the president and party in power accepted the will of the majority of the electorate and handed over office peacefully after an initial, but brief, call for a recount of votes in some areas. The former president, Desiré Bouterse, himself sashed the new president, Chandrikapersad Santokhi.

There were no international observers at the St Kitts-Nevis and Trinidad and Tobago elections. In both nations, quarantine restrictions, on persons arriving in the countries, prohibited the presence of external elections observation missions. It has been argued that incumbent governments took advantage of the curtailments, occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic, to constrain political party campaigning and to exclude observers from organisations such as the Commonwealth, the Organisation of American States (OAS) and CARICOM – all of which played a vital role in Guyana.

Speculation still lingers over the St Kitts-Nevis elections on June 5, where opposition parties claimed that the government used border closures to prevent nationals from returning home to vote, and to exclude external observers.

In the case of Trinidad and Tobago, it is doubtful that the integrity of the elections suffered from the absence of external observers. Over the years, the electoral machinery, as an institution, has been strengthened, providing confidence in the process. This confidence was evident when the August 10 elections were hailed by all the parties as free and fair. It was only the main opposition party, that called for a recount of six constituencies. Nonetheless, the presence of external observers would have helped to engender trust in the elections and eliminate the claims that led to the recount.

The experiences of Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago – each of them plural societies in which ethnicity plays a part in political party support – underscore the vital importance of strong, independent bodies to oversee elections. In both Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago, it is generally accepted that the elections bodies are institutionally strong.

This was not the case in Guyana, and it is precisely why the presence of international observers was so vital to a democratic result of the elections and maintenance of the rule of law. Similarly, international observers, and their assessment of the fairness of the Suriname elections, contributed to the acceptance of the results of the May 25 poll. Bouterse, an army man and leader of two coups d’état in the past, might otherwise have fancied his chances of seizing office. An identical prospect also hung-over Guyana for five months.

What this all emphasizes is that external observation of general elections is important to guard against fraud and elections rigging, and for the maintenance of the rule of law and democracy. Even if the elections machinery in a country is strong, it takes only one or two key officials to act improperly to manipulate results in favour of political parties they support.

Almost every country in the world now accepts the value of external observation of its elections, even the United States of America. In 2016, both the OAS and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe observed the US presidential elections and are preparing to do so again for the 2020 elections on November 3.

The value that external observation missions bring to the integrity of an election, the legitimacy of a declared winner, and the willingness of a population to accept a result, is vital and should be encouraged.

In this connection, Jamaica’s prime minister Andrew Holness has announced that early general elections will be held on September 3. While Jamaica has quarantine restrictions in place for visitors, there is time now for invitations to be issued to CARICOM, the Commonwealth and the OAS either to send separate teams or to collaborate, to save higher costs, by sending a combined team to observe the elections. Such a mission would give greater credibility and acceptability to the elections for which parties have been gearing for weeks.

External elections observer missions proved decisive in Guyana and beneficial in Suriname – the peoples of both countries can attest to their crucial value.

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