The next general election, a crucial one for Belizeans due to the coming deluge/cataclysm pronounced by the Prime Minister Dean Barrow (in his words, après moi le deluge), is less than four weeks away.
To my dismay, neither of the parties nor any of the candidates has brought up the issue of ensuring proper oversight of the election process.
Such a process does not commence when the voting starts on election morning. In our case, it would go as far back as the re-registration exercise that got underway in 2018, through to the transfer period this year, and now also involves the specific planning for election day and rules made and implemented through to voting day, the generation of an accurate voters list, access to polling stations and ease of voting on polling day, the efficiency and accuracy of the counting process, and the announcement of results.
My participation in Guyana’s national elections in 2006 as a member of the Commonwealth Observer Mission headed by renowned former Deputy Prime Minister of Fiji, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, gave me an extraordinary viewpoint on the running of an election and how paramount an efficient election process is.
More importantly, it allowed me to act as a vanguard of the democratic values espoused by a fair and free election system. The experience as an elections observer also taught me how dynamic Guyana’s political structure is and the important role social movements play in preserving democracy.
(See our report here: https://www.gecom.org.gy/archived/pdf/Commonwealth%20Observer%20Group%20Report%20on%20the%202006%20Elections.pdf)
In our Belize, the election process is generally viewed as fair and free, but there have been instances when the decision-making has been skewed and influenced by other factors, including but not limited to the illegal registration of voters, the illegal buying of votes, and also a constant perception that the election body in charge submits to political pressure instead of remaining independent and autonomous.
Case in point #1: the Organisation of American States (OAS) Elections Observer Mission that participated in the last general elections on the November 4, 2015 elections cited the following:
“Members of the OAS/EOM also observed the persistence of an issue raised in the report of the 2012 EOM relative to campaigning taking place well within the established 100-yard limit from polling centers. The issue of campaigning in and around polling stations constituted a concern for the Mission. Belizean law permits canvassing and the distribution of pre-marked sample ballots within voting centers and allows campaign advertising in the vicinity of polling stations.
“On Election Day, the active presence of large groups of political party supporters outside of voting centers, could produce an environment that would make it uncomfortable for some voters to express their preferences without feeling outside pressure. In one instance, the Mission received reports of a party activist distributing money outside of the voting center to certain voters. Such activity could well be interpreted as vote-buying, which is against the law”. – (See report here: http://aceproject.org/ero-en/regions/americas/BZ/belize-verbal-report-general-elections-oas-2015)
Case in point #2: the January 2017 Senate Select Committee investigation testimony by former Chief Elections Officer Ruth Meighan, in which she said that, in the period leading to the 2012 election, while she served as the Director of Immigration, some 2,000 individuals received nationality under improper circumstances, and were registered to vote in expedited fashion, to influence the outcome of the elections. With no action taken on the many wrongs highlighted in that investigation, these illegally registered voters are likely back on the electoral rolls as we head into a new election.
Case in point #3: the last-minute appointment of a Chairperson to the Elections and Boundaries Commission, who is a known supporter of the ruling party. (See news report here: https://www.breakingbelizenews.com/2020/07/15/objections-to-appointment-of-new-chairman-of-elections-and-boundaries-commission/)
The issues cited above, in addition to concerns about the lack of campaign financing, the politicising of COVID-19 relief funds, and land giveaways to gain votes, necessitate that an independent body or group oversees our elections.
I was concerned that one of the reasons for the lack of an official request for Elections Observer Missions was that perhaps due to COVID-19 such specialised missions were on hold, but that’s not the case. The European Union (EU), the Commonwealth, the Carter Center and the OAS deployed missions to the Guyana elections in March and were crucial in shedding light on the process.
CARICOM organised a mission in the May 2020 elections in Suriname, as well as the June 2020 elections in St. Kitts and Nevis. Interestingly, while an invitation had been issued to the OAS, it was later retracted by the Government.
Finally, in Jamaica’s recent elections held in September 2020, there were at least two observer mission groups, including the EU.
In a recent article by Wazim Mowla (https://theglobalamericans.org/) on the fact that no international election observer missions were able to meet the stiff quarantine requirements in order to oversee the elections in Trinidad and Tobago held in August 2020, the author questioned the motives for frustrating the process and rightly stated, “Not only do these election missions add a layer of legitimacy to election results, it also serves as protection against political instability if a losing party were to reject the outcome.”
Noteworthy is that in the elections held in St. Kitts & Nevis and Jamaica, two domestic electoral observer groups named the “Citizens Action for Free and Fair Elections” (CAFFE) and the NGO Coalition Observer Team, the latter comprised of members of clergy, pastors, and associate pastors, were able to organise, mobilise and give feedback on the elections process.
This was like fresh breeze and proof that in our region we are becoming more concerned about the veracity of the election process. Perhaps it is time for Belize to follow suit, since time is running out on official invitations to international observer missions.
I’ll give this process a nudge by nominating three of our most respected Belizeans in our time to head such a mission: attorney Audrey Matura, Senator Mark Lizarraga and Plus TV owner Pastor Louis Wade.
As the wise words of national leader Philip S. W. Goldson reminds us, “The time to save our country is before we lose it”.
Alberto A. Vellos
(Former Commonwealth Youth Caucus, Representative for Belize)