In any democracy consultation and dialogue play an important role in national development be it on issues relating to health, education, the state of the economy, social welfare or electoral reform. 

Trade union concerns cannot and should not be limited to matters strictly dealing with industrial relations. At this stage in the development of our region we are faced with many issues which require the involvement of all in bringing about resolutions. 

When as trade unionists we are told that we are out of place to speak out on those issues – we say no we are not. It is those who say we should not who are out of place. While we have to deal with political issues, though, Trade unions should be non-partisan.

Electoral reform in our view is one of the biggest demonstrations of democracy because it facilitates free and fair elections. It sets the foundation for all who are eligible and qualified to vote to do so. It sets a level playing field for all who are participating or offering themselves as candidates. It ensures that we will have an electoral list which is sanitized – and one that allows those who have departed this life to be removed from the list and be allowed to rest in peace.

Trade unions stand for justice, equality, equity and fraternity. One way of demonstrating this is by identifying with the call for electoral reform. 

In looking beyond the boundaries of industrial relations we have empowered our members through advocacy, through representation and through negotiation and discussion to stand up in defense of democracy and against injustice and unfairness. 

A system which places any one group far above another simply because of who sits in office cannot be a fair one and needs to be reviewed, and to be reviewed promptly. 

A society where the electoral system denies citizens equal rights and freedom cannot be accepted as being truly democratic. This is enough reason for electoral reform.

This rapidly developing and unfortunate local and regional political culture of the abuse of the poor and less fortunate by providing them with money and material things days before a general election solely to obtain their votes is  degrading and unacceptable. How much more unchristian can it be for a ruling government to fail to create the enabling environment for employment for years, only to bribe voters leading to election day. The uneducated and even many educated citizens are left to the mercies of politicians of the ruling party who behave as if state resources are their personal properties. Opportunities for employment which would result in individual independence are being replaced by a dependency syndrome. The functionaries of the public services are being ostracized by Ministers of Government who personally approve and deliver handouts to the electorate. 

Our respective constitutions embrace the Westminster model of government, whose objective is to ensure that we adopt and maintain democracy. We ask the question “Is this really the case?” In most instances our Head of State is a ceremonial figurehead with no administrative power. The power lies in the hands of the Prime Minister who can sometimes be described as a legislated dictator in his own rights. He decides who should become Ministers and who should be fired as Ministers. In the absence of a legislated fixed date for general election, he only determines when election should be called and does that when it is advantageous to him, most times taking the opposition unaware and without the financial resources to run a proper campaign. 

Regardless of its origin how can any patriotic, right thinking citizen continue to support a practice which allows citizens residing outside of any jurisdiction for umpteen years without any contact with anyone from his native land to fly in on chartered flights on the eve of elections with all costs of traveling and accommodation paid by a politician to vote and disappear the next day?

Electoral reform should not ban citizens residing outside of their ‘mother’ land from participating in elections. After all many of them send remittances back home. Following disasters they mount up campaigns for relief assistance. They are part of organizations providing assistance in the areas of health and education. Some of them serve in diplomatic missions overseas. It is only fair that they be allowed to participate in national elections. What is required is adherence to the legislative criteria to prevent bribery and unfairness.

Another area which needs attention in the discussion on electoral reform is the use of state resources to place the incumbent administration at an unfair advantage over opposition parties. In some cases the Leader of the opposition is not provided with a physical office space and supporting staff. They are denied time on national radio and television even if they are prepared to pay. There are many instances where state resources are used to employ persons in positions in the public service which are not required with the only reason being to promote the political party in power. Their more than attractive salaries and other conditions of employment escalate the wage bill resulting in Governments’ unfair justification to pay reasonable salary increases to public officers. 

Instead of creating unnecessary positions with accompanying exorbitant salaries to those who may have lost at the general election in their constituencies why can’t they be reverted to the posts they previously held in the service or to one of equivalent status? 

Electoral reform cannot be addressed without emphasis being placed on campaign financing. Decades ago the electorate in voting for a party would base his decision on that party’s ability to satisfactorily address social and economic issues among others. Those days are rapidly giving way to support for the party with the most campaign funds. The sources and level of funding remain a mystery, and unquestionably an avenue for possible corruption. 

On the issue of voters’ identification: where it does not exist, Governments and oppositions need to arrive at a consensus. What is required is a card for voting. It is unfair to continue confusing voters on that matter as it relates to the type of identification – a national or voter ID card. The merits and demerits need to be discussed and expert and professional advise be considered. 

Character assassination has become a feature of campaigns, a factor which discourages many qualified people from offering themselves as candidates. Protection of candidates from slander and abuse should be addressed in electoral reform. The damage to candidates and their families can have lasting effects. The constitutional criteria to being a candidate which in my mind are too basic may need to be reviewed. 

Monitoring of general elections is a farce. The monitoring agencies have basically no clout, and what makes the exercise even more ludicrous is the fact that recommendations which would ensure fairness are often ignored. The recommendations of too many monitoring agencies go unimplemented by the incumbent without any consequences. The words of the great Bob Marley should resonate in our mind. We need to “free ourselves from mental slavery. None, but we ourselves can free our minds”.   

In summary, I concede that electoral reform remains a challenge for us. But it is not an insurmountable one. As citizens of a democratic society we must remain resilient and persistent in demanding justice, and a fair and impartial electoral system. Nothing less will be acceptable.

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