In the last two articles of this series, we examined the report and recommendations of the Joint CARICOM-COMMONWEALTH-OAS Special Mission for electoral reform in Dominica and the immediate categorical rejection of the same by the Attorney-General on behalf of the DLP government.
In light of the above and considering the tremendous concerns of Dominicans actively led by the Concern Citizen Movement (CCM), a larger social grouping of churches, businesses, trade unions and civic interest groups intensified its public engagements to facilitate efforts towards electoral reform in Dominica. The Group, which commenced its work in January 2019 had as its objective finding ways for Dominica to achieve necessary electoral reform before the next general election. It consisted of the Dominica Christian Council, the Dominica Association of Evangelical Churches, the Dominica Business Forum, the Dominica Bar Association, the Dominica Public Service Union and the Waterfront and the Allied Workers Union.
According to the President of the Dominica Business Forum, Mr. Severin McKenzie at the launching of the Group, it intended to focus on issues related to the indelible ink as the only mechanism currently in place to prevent people from voting twice. It would also focus on the practicalities of the cleansing of the voters list and issuance of voter ID cards, stressing that the overall objective is to ensure that our elections are conducted in a free and fair manner. He stated that the concern is not about who wins the next elections as long as the elections are free and fair and if urgent work is not undertaken to achieve that objective, then it may not be done. McKenzie maintained that the responsibility for electoral reform and consequently, free and fair general elections, lies not with the government but squarely in the hands of the Electoral Commission. He emphasized that the responsibility for the preparation for general elections is not in the hands of the Prime Minister but it falls under the responsibility of the Electoral Commission.
The Electoral Reform Group (hereinafter referred to as the Group) held meetings with electoral and government officials including the Chairman of the Electoral Commission, the Chief Elections Officer, His Excellency the President, Charles Savarin, the Attorney General, officials of all political parties on Island and the Concerned Citizens Movement (CCM). It organized several public discussions to solicit the views of members of the public to the extent that it issued a special invitation to the government’s legal advisor SC Anthony Astaphan to join its the panel in order to broaden the discussion on the way forward in achieving electoral reform prior to the general elections, which was constitutionally due in 2020 but held on 06 December 2019.
The Group desired to educate the general public and to increase the general understanding of the electoral process and to highlight why there was (still is) an urgent and paramount need for electoral reform in Dominica. The Group considered its efforts as a patriotic initiative considering the possibility of going into another general election in 2019/2020 without the necessary reform as recommended by successive OAS and Commonwealth Observers Missions, noting the repeated recommendation to cleanse our list of registered voters as it was (still is) widely and publicly discredited. Accordingly, despite being accurate and appropriate in the eyes of existing legislation, no Observer Missions was convinced that our elections have been fair and can be said to be a genuine representation of the wishes of Dominican society.
Following months of widespread consultations, the Group issued its final Report on 7 October, 2019. It complemented and amplified the efforts of the Special Joint Mission of the Secretariats of CARICOM, the Commonwealth (COMSEC), and the OAS (GS/OAS). The Group lauded the Special Joint Mission for its work and its reinforcement of what the Group considered to be workable recommendations towards achieving realistic electoral reform in advance of the upcoming general elections.
The Group’s report suggested that electoral reforms should be careful not to add increasingly detailed provisions to existing electoral law, and “while it may be necessary to fill loopholes in the electoral law, a review of the election legislation should be undertaken with the aim to clarify and simplify complex provisions as well as to remove inconsistencies and unnecessary repetitions.” The document, however, stipulated that effort should be made to harmonize electoral and election-related legislation, as stability of the electoral law is crucial to credibility of the electoral process. Notwithstanding the above, the Group observed that the proposed Registration of Electors (Amendment) Bill 2018 introduced in parliament by the DLP government did not make a minimal contribution to the process of electoral reform and if implemented would have “profound negative implications for the right to vote including the risks of retaining, on the lists of registered electors, names of persons who would otherwise be determined to be ineligible to remain on those lists.
The Group endorses these recommendations of the Special Joint Mission, which it considered was a validation of its own recommendations in particular;
- Electoral reform should ideally be a continuous process, rather than be viewed as an event;
- No aspect of electoral frameworks, systems, institutions, planning, management or operations, however well it may have functioned in the past, should be regarded as sacrosanct from reform or modernization. Past performance is not necessarily a reliable guide to future performance;
- [Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs), and therefore our own local Electoral Commission], have vital roles to play as advocates of electoral reforms in general, as implementers of institutional reforms, and as initiators and implementers of administrative reforms, including technical and procedural reforms
- Political will and political consensus among key stakeholders is vital for successful implementation of electoral reform.
These validations, according to the Group, gave greater clarity to, and even confirmed, the true intent of the patriotic initiative undertaken by the Group who, concerned about the possibility of going into another general election without the necessary reform as recommended by the OAS and Commonwealth observers of the last general election and the possible repercussions that may ensue if the next elections are perceived to be delegitimized, spent the last few months in this effort. The Group held the opinion that the public would be short-changed if the Special Joint Mission’s recommendations are not implemented noting that the Special Joint Mission’s recommendations are underpinned by those important best practice norms. Hence, its recommendation to obtain data for issuing voter ID cards and to commence the work of sanitizing the electoral lists via a house-house re-verification of electors will set the groundwork for the Constituency Boundaries Commission to undertake its own future reforms to enforce the existing constitutional provisions that “all constituencies shall contain as nearly equal numbers of inhabitants as appears to the Constituency Boundaries Commission to be reasonably practicable.” As noted by the successive Observers, for the December 2014 Parliamentary Elections, the size of constituencies ranged from a low 1,564 electors to a high 7,446, further highlighting the need for review of existing electoral boundaries.”
The Group recognized the authority of the Electoral Commission in ensuring a free and fair electoral process and appealed to all stakeholders, including political parties and the general public, to assist in whatever way possible to facilitate the process. Given the pronouncement of the Electoral Commission that had obtained the required resources from the executive for its verification exercise that was supposed to have commenced in July 2018 and only an increase in manpower may be necessary, the Group recommended that the 200 person team should be engaged to conduct the verification exercise and collection of data for ID’s in less than 8 weeks.
Although the Group had previously recommended that the Electoral Commission can amend legislation by regulations to enable it to issue ID cards with the biometric data as it considers necessary, the Group also recommended that if the spirit of compromise within the leading political parties exists, that could be presented to Parliament for enactment in a simplified, focused and appropriate amendment that will adequately empower the Chief Elections Officer to issue, and require to be used in any election, the necessary voter identification cards. Therefore, the Group called on the Electoral Commission and the Executive Branch of Government, led by the Hon. Attorney General, to draft with much dispatch this legislation. Failing urgent action by the political leaders and parliament, and even out of an abundance of caution, the Group recommended that the Electoral Commission immediately proceed with the required amendment of legislation by regulation.
The Group underscored the plea of the Special Joint Mission, encouraging the leaders of the two main political parties to engage in earnest, meaningful and constructive one-to-one dialogue on the issue of electoral reform, noting the willingness of all three organizations – CARICOM, the Commonwealth and the OAS to facilitate such an endeavour should this recommendation be welcomed by the authorities.The concern was expressed that if the implementation of the recommendations were to fail, all other efforts should be made to ensure that the coming elections is not held without the reform and therefore to do all to prevent civil disturbances or unrest stemming ultimately from the failure to undertake the required reform. In that regard, the Group strongly recommended the urgent setup of the machinery to consider and undertake legal avenues to ensure timely necessary reform before the next general elections. Dominica cannot afford further civil unrest in the wake of a general election, the Group argued.
The Group did not acknowledge that the AG had flatly rejected the recommendations of the Joint Missions but in terms of its recommendations, it sought to complement and reinforce the recommendations of the said Mission and previous Observer Missions. It called on the following bodies accordingly;
- The Electoral Commission: To move urgently to implement the recommendations of the Special Joint Mission in its entirety as far as practical, including making the appropriate regulations to enable its work.
- The Government: To provide all and any additional financial and other resources necessary, in order to enable the Electoral Commission to complete the necessary reform activities before the next general elections.
- The Office of the Attorney General and the Electoral Commission: To work on the bill necessary for presentation to Parliament for enactment of a simplified, focused and appropriate amendment that will adequately empower the Chief Elections Officer to issue, and require to be used in any election, the necessary voter identification cards.
- The Leaders of the political parties: To engage in earnest meaningful and constructive one-to-one dialogue on the issue of electoral reform, and to cease all their parties’ interference in the work of the Electoral Commission.
- Political Parties, and other concerned citizens or bodies: To consider court action to guide the process of reform, if all else fails, in order to ensure that the Electoral Commission undertakes the timely necessary reform before the next general elections and for every and all citizens to renew their commitment to collaborate in resolving Dominica’s electoral challenges, to pray and work for peace, and do all in our own locality and influence to avert the occurrence of civil disturbances in the wake of a general election.
The Group concluded, in words that remain true today, “Dominica deserves the peaceful collaborative effort in rebuilding our democracy and called for peace to flow in a just society and systems of governance. Our country cannot afford civil unrest in the wake of [or following] a general election” [if one may add following a court’s decision to throw out 10 election Petitions of the Opposition]. It advised all stakeholders, including political parties, and in particular the Prime Minister, “to exercise moral responsibility to ensure a smooth electoral process and to exemplify this moral responsibility by refraining from exercising his constitutional privilege to dissolve parliament and to call the next general election for at least the next six (6) months from October 2019 or during the period when greater effort by the Electoral Commission is realized in the necessary electoral reform, unless elections became constitutionally due in 2020.”
All these lofty recommendations were emphatically rejected by the Prime Minister and leader of the DLP. Elections that were constitutionally due in May 2020 were called for 06 December 2019, in which the Opposition participated having previously stated that it would not without electoral reform and suffered a humiliating defeat of 18 seats to 3 seats in the House of Assembly.