WE commend Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley for inviting Caricom and the Commonwealth to send observer missions to T&T’s general election of August 10. Since 2000, foreign observer missions have been a standard part of T&T’s election landscape and we see no reason for objecting to them.
We would have thought our democracy was politically mature enough for our leaders to accept such invitations as routine. The fact that UNC leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar found it necessary to make her demand public would suggest otherwise.
Trinidad and Tobago has had a long history of conducting its elections independently and with care.
This is not to say that we have not had our fair share of allegations of electoral theft. The loudest of these followed the introduction of voting machines in the 1961 general election which fuelled such distrust among sections of the electorate that the machines were eventually replaced by the ballot box in 1976 following a successful Opposition boycott against them in 1971.
The more common suspicion here is of voter-padding which in 2000 took on a sinister tone with the police being called in by the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) to investigate 252 suspicious applications for voter transfers from safe to marginal seats. The flare-up of public fears about electoral fraud prompted the then Panday administration to invite the Commonwealth to send its first-ever election observer mission to Trinidad and Tobago.
In its post-election report, the Commonwealth mission commented that “The conduct of the poll was in many ways an object lesson in how it should be done” and demonstrated “the depth of Trinidad and Tobago’s democratic culture”.
However, that mission’s recommendation that the EBC strengthen its voter education activities is particularly relevant today given the Covid-19 conditions under which next month’s election will be held. The EBC must ensure that its agents, candidate representatives and the electorate are all fully au courant with any change of process. Election day anxiety can turn the smallest infraction into a cause célèbre, especially via social media. On the assumption that every political party and candidate will have batteries of lawyers ready and available to challenge its decisions on-the-spot, the EBC should have its own team of independent and experienced legal minds ready to respond to every situation that arises. We cannot afford a repeat of the interpretation errors that occurred in the Local Government election.
We only have to look at the sorry spectacle of Guyana to appreciate the critical importance of protecting the integrity of our electoral process. No one could have imagined that 18 months after the Granger government collapsed under a no-confidence motion Guyana would still be in a state of flux, without a legitimate government and with the incumbent clinging to office by every means necessary.
By contrast, we in T&T have much to cherish and protect. We urge all aspirants to office and their supporters not to take our electoral system for granted. Equally, we urge the EBC to recognise its responsibility to engage the electorate in a manner that demonstrates its understanding that public trust is a critical factor in its own success.