The Prime Minister of Dominica advised the nation that retired Chief Justice, Sir Denis Byron will not necessarily be serving as a “Sole Commissioner” to review and to make legislative proposals for electoral reform in Dominica, contrary to his initial declaration. Although Sir Byron has already commenced his work, he will be ably assisted in compiling his report and making recommendations for electoral reform in Dominica by electoral experts from the OAS and the Commonwealth, who are expected to bring their knowledge and experience of international best practice to bear on the process.
Since 1980, the Commonwealth has observed more than 160 elections in 40 member states, including Dominica. Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Secretariat, Dominican born Ms. Patricia Scotland, speaking on a recent panel entitled, ‘Reflecting on the Commonwealth’s Electoral History and Evolution’ to mark 40 years of the Commonwealth observing elections,” urged member countries to focus on building a more equal, inclusive and sustainable world. She touted the occasion as a “valuable opportunity to review and assess the many ways in which the Commonwealth’s work on international election observation has contributed to the promotion of democracy, to peace and to the advancement of processes which are conducive to the nurture and development of our fundamental Commonwealth values.”
Commonwealth Observer Missions visited Dominica to observe both the 08 December 2014 and 06 December 2019 general elections and to make recommendations for improvements of the electoral process in Dominica. Essentially, the Terms of Reference for these Missions were to consider the various factors impinging on the credibility of the electoral process in Dominica as a whole and to determine whether these elections have been conducted according to established standards for democratic election to which Dominica has committed itself through its constitutional and national election laws, and relevant regional, Commonwealth and other international commitments. On both occasions, the Commonwealth Mission held extensive discussions with a wide cross-section of government officials and with members of the local business, religious, political and social organization.
For avoidance of doubt and to clarify to those who claim that there is no need for filing election petitions in Dominica since our elections were observed and reported upon as free, albeit not fair but representing the will of the people, election observer missions do not have any executive role or judicial authority and are only expected to act impartially and independently in exercising their function. Moreover, they are not supervisors of an election process but merely observe the process as a whole, form a professional judgement and propose to the authorities concerned such actions on institutional, procedural and other matters as would assist in the holding of elections by way of recommendations contained in their report.
Among the major issues discussed in the lead up to the 2014 and 2019 general elections were the DLP government’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China and the efficacy of Official Development Assistance (ODA) and in particular its apparent significant impact on the campaign and its influence on the lives of Dominicans. Concerns were raised with respect to allegations of abuse of incumbency by the DLP Administration, as did allegations of the treating and bribery of nationals living abroad to vote in favour of the incumbent DLP Administration. The opposition United Workers Party repeatedly took issue with the accuracy of the voters’ list, citing the total number of registered voters relative to the official population estimate and the fact that in spite of repeated promises of the DLP’s Administration, electors are not issued with ID cards for voting.
Prior to undertaking their work, the Commonwealth Observer Missions familiarized themselves with the electoral laws of Dominica, particularly with respect to issues related to the following;
· Voter eligibility and registration as per Section 32(a) and (b) of the Constitution of Dominica in light of the high ratio of registered voters to the population – between 94.6% in 2014 and 98.6% in 2019;
· The electoral offences- intoxication, treating, bribery, undue influence etc. under the Sections 49-56 of House of Assembly (Elections) Act, Chapter 2:01;
· The power and abuse of incumbency advantage, which manifests itself in an acute manner in the absence of campaign finance regulations, where there is potential abuse and disparity of access to state media by one party, potential breaches of civil service regulations, where public servants are openly politically partisan in the exercise of their functions and assist in the distribution and provision of government services and goods;
As noted by the 2019 Commonwealth Mission, the narratives of electoral reform dominated the discussion, particularly the issues of cleansing the register of voters by removal of deceased persons and ineligible voters, the non- issuance of some form photo identification (ID) cards to voters in order to facilitate more accurate identification at the polls, and the mounting concern of excessive spending during election campaign in Dominica. The Mission also took particular note of several recurring issues from past Missions, not limited to the Missions of the Commonwealth Mission, including:
i. Campaign Financing: It was noted that the laws of Dominica make no provision for nor stipulate regulations for the control of campaign financing. All political parties campaigned on allegations of impropriety of other parties regarding the source and handling of campaign finance. It was acknowledged by the main political parties that election campaigns had become very expensive but there has never been clarity on the source of funds or how political parties spent their campaign funds, which makes it difficult for any observer mission to ascertain the actual budget of a political party.
ii. Campaign environment: The political environment in the last two general election cycles has been highly competitive with a spirit of tolerance and respect for differing political views. However, the Mission specifically observed in 2014, “maipuis” (the Creole phrase for often humorous but caustic or inflammatory comment, usually of a mocking and personal nature) remained the norm, despite both parties signing the Code of Conduct brokered by the Christian Council.” With respect to the 2019 elections, the Mission stated that although it was unable to observe the full campaign period, its teams witnessed the final campaign rallies of the two main political parties, which it described as “being peaceful, colourful in nature, very well attended with party leaders addressing enthusiastic crowds.” In this regard, the fundamental rights of candidates, political parties and supporters to assemble and campaign were broadly observed.
iii. Unequal access and polarization of media along party lines: During the 2014 and 2019, elections, the Commonwealth Observers took note of the unequal access and imbalance of reporting by the GIS and DBS radio as state owned media houses with respect to the government and the opposition.
Perhaps the seed or need for the appointment of an independent professional like retired Justice Byron came out of the recommendations of the Commonwealth Observers, who noted “the modalities for electoral reform lack universal appeal.” Hence, the recommendation, “the Electoral Commission (not the government) should be guided by international best practice when appropriate draft electoral reforms legislations are circulated for national discussion and debate. Any proposed reform, however, should form the basis for a solution relevant and applicable to Dominica.
In the next edition of this series, we shall examine the specific recommendations of the Commonwealth Observer Missions over the two last elections cycles.