Despite various flaws which gain prominence from time to time, especially in situations where there is fundamental disagreement among opposing interest groups on certain issues, the system of democracy is widely considered to be the best form of government in human history.
Despite populating the earth for thousands of years and living in organized communities, humankind is yet to come up with a perfect system of government which is to the full satisfaction of every societal interest group. Indeed, such will remain elusive because of the inherent human condition called imperfection.
Barbados and other countries of the English-speaking Caribbean are fortunate, since gaining their political independence, to have generally well-functioning democratic systems. National constitutions confer on citizens various rights and freedoms, including the right to participate in the process of choosing a government through the free exercise of their franchise.
Election campaigns in the region tend to be fiercely contested as competing parties slug it out in the battle to win the hearts and minds of voters. However, the actual elections are generally peaceful, conducted in a free and fair manner and the outcomes are usually accepted and respected by the participating political parties. In this sense, we have achieved a level of political maturity of which we can be rightly proud.
Unfortunately, this is not the case in many countries which emerged from the same colonial background that bequeathed a democratic system of government. We have been following with interest recent post-election developments in the West African country of the Gambia, which once shared Commonwealth membership with the countries of our region until the government left the organization in 2013 amid concerns about human rights.
The Gambia is currently in the throes of a political crisis after voters in a recent presidential election opted to ditch long-time strongman Yahya Jammeh, who came to power as a junior military officer in a 1994 coup that toppled a democratically elected government. Jammeh initially conceded defeat and said he would accept the verdict of the people.
However, in a surprise development, the mercurial and eccentric 51-year-old leader who once claimed to have found a cure for HIV/AIDS, changed his tune, challenged the result and called for fresh elections. What is really astounding is that Jammeh, before the poll, had declared the electoral system “rig-proof”, a view also shared by the opposition.
Jammeh’s about-turn in annulling the election result has brought swift condemnation both on the African continent and the wider international community. The African Union and the United Nations called on him to accept defeat. Adama Barrow, the winning opposition presidential candidate, called for Jammeh’s immediate departure from office instead of waiting until next month when his current term expires.
After 22 years in power, several factors contributed to Jammeh’s defeat, including a strong desire for change among young people, who face a high level of unemployment. Jammeh’s detention of the main opposition leader earlier this year is seen as another major contributing factor as it opened the door for the various opposition parties to come together in a coalition and put forward a single candidate in Barrow, a virtual political unknown.
Hopefully, intervention by four African leaders, including Nigerian President Mohammadu Buhari, will bring about a peaceful resolution to the crisis. After the December 1 election result was announced, Gambians took to the streets to celebrate the downfall of Jammeh who seems to have retained the loyalty of the army, even though the military chief initially pledged loyalty to the president-elect. The will of the people must be respected and the gun must not be allowed to triumph over the ballot box.
While we have not had such challenges in the Caribbean, the lesson from the Gambian experience is that democracy is fragile and should never be taken for granted. Here in Barbados, general elections are due in less than a year and a half. There is one major concern which should be uppermost on the minds of Barbadians as we look to safeguard our democracy.
It relates to the illegal practice of vote buying which, based on the outcry especially from Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, appears to have been quite widespread the last general election. Vote buying undermines the free expression of the will of the people because it involves inducement to vote a particular way. Mr Stuart had promised to take steps at the legislative level to root the problem but, after four years, he is yet to deliver on his promise.
We take this opportunity to remind him of the commitment he gave. We cannot have a situation where our democracy is up for sale every five years to the highest bidder. The price of our liberty is eternal vigilance.