Anyone interested in free and fair elections (clean elections) should not only familiarize themselves with the 1944 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which detail the essential ingredients to a ‘meaningful election process’, but should understand that free and fair elections are not confined to poll day only. Indeed, three articles of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights have obvious implications for the determination of whether or not an election is free and fair. These are Articles, 19, 21 and 22.
• Article 19 specifically speaks to the right to hold opinions without interference, and to freedom of expression;
• Article 21 identifies and addresses the right of peaceful assembly; and
• Article 22 introduces the right to freedom of association.
How do you determine whether or not elections are free and fair? The Inter-Parliamentary Union argues that such assessments must extend beyond matters of law and form, ‘to examine political society at large, including the nature of the electoral system, voter entitlement, voter registration, party organization, party financing, candidate selection, electoral expenses, voter education, the conduct of election campaigns, and the effectiveness of traditional political rights’. Equally important are the inclusiveness of the system, access to the media, security of the environment and the security of the ballot.
How to ensure that standards are observed was addressed in a previous column, with a focus on international observation missions (domestic observers are equally important). So, today, I will address another method/strategy which is also conspicuously absent as well in Barbados. That is an Election Code of Conduct.
What is a Code of Conduct?
Whereas, pro-active Elections Commissions have drawn up legally binding Codes of Conduct to guide the behaviour of political parties, the Media and political candidates, typically, these are voluntary instruments.
A Code of Conduct is a tool which contribute to freedom and fairness. If it is effective, a Code of Conduct will promote consultation and discussion across party lines, in the interests of a ‘good’ election, but also more generally in promoting confidence among the participants and expectations within the electorate.
What is the purpose of a Code of Conduct?
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a code of conduct agreed to by political parties, can provide the necessary and usually non-binding standards by which acts and actors can be judged. Not only have they been able to defuse potentially tense political situations in conflict ridden communities and countries on the cusp of transitioning from authoritarian to democratic countries, but they routinely contribute to peaceful voting.
Additionally, they can contribute to not only greater transparency and accountability, but they promote effective choice; assist in the development of a representative and credible process; and in help to reduce adversarial political relationships.
Typically what do Codes of Conduct Require?
These typically establish the basic campaign freedoms for all parties, call for the prohibition of intimidation and violence at political meetings, and, establish both the requirement and the modalities for regular communication between the parties. Codes, call for the avoidance of language or conduct that may lead to violence or intimidation or that may exploit or aggravate existing differences at community level. And clearly this is warranted in Barbados, given the insulting, derogatory and incendiary language already being used on the political platform. It also seeks to ensure that parties and their supporters do not disrupt each other’s’ meetings and motorcades. It is therefore fully anticipated that parties will communicate these to their supporters, some of whom can become overzealous especially in a context where elections are seen as a zero sum game.
They also typically call for parties to refrain from name calling and to focus on policies and programmes. In St. Kitts and Nevis for instance a Code of Conduct, stressed ‘issues rather than personalities’, that candidates ‘must seek to be truthful about the past and present socio-economic state’, and ‘avoid raising unfulfillable expectations and making unrealistic promises. Further, among the responsibilities of the political parties is the requirement to ‘discipline and restrain’ their members and sympathizers from committing any violation of law or procedure and, to publicly condemn violence and reject discrimination. These are crucial aspects of any Code of Conduct, for as we know Caribbean elections are often quite emotional. While these appear to be quite noble and ambitious, Observer Missions reported that far from adhering to the Code, political parties and candidates, tended to focus on personalities rather than issues and that personal invectives and incendiary language were normalised during the election period. What some in the Caribbean refer to as “gutter politics”.
Today given the Millennium Development Goals and Agenda 2030, Codes also extend to gender issue. Acknowledging that female candidates often face great hostility, intimidation and insults during election period, the Codes call for positive campaigning rather than the old age negative campaigning which seems to dominate campaign platforms. It was in that context, that having signed on to a Code of Conduct in Dominica that Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of the Dominica Labour Party, used some harsh and demeaning language to describe UWP Monel Williams. In response both Dominica Christian Council (DCC) and the Dominica Association of Evangelical Churches (DAEC) said they were “deeply concerned about statements made recently from the political platform and on the radio with respect to candidates.” To his credit the Prime Minister offered what appeared to be a genuine apology for the infraction.
Who Should Oversee
Often these are overseen by an independent Elections Commission or by the Christian Council as it is done in several Commonwealth Caribbean jurisdictions. But to do so requires that the Commission actively monitor public meetings and for the media to name and shame those who violate the guidelines of the code.
Preliminary Thoughts on a Code: What should be covered at a minimum?
To be effective, such codes should be reached as a result of careful consultations among the parties taking part in the election, even parties that are not contesting the elections. Codes of conduct adopted mechanically from other countries are not as likely to produce positive effects on campaign behaviour. Among other things they should include:
• Affirmation of the legal authority of the EMB (which means abiding by the laws, rules and regulations of the Commission)
• Respect for the secrecy of the ballot
• Non-interference in the campaign activities of political competitors
• Promotion of non-violence and intimidation whether against, contestants, voters and poll workers
• Refraining from negative campaigning
• Admonitions to electors concerning destruction of flags, banners and billboards (in Barbados the latter are illegal)
• Respect for the results of the election
• Rejection of bribes and other inducements to voters
• Organizers of public political meetings, motorcades, should advise the police, the EMB and other parties contesting the election, of the intended time, date and place. This would avoid unnecessary conflict.
• Admonitions to voters not to sell their vote
• Media to report fairly on the campaign
There is much at stake in this election, and a Code of Conduct can be an invaluable tool to a clean election. We know that everything thus far, suggest that the election period will be acrimonious. A senior government minister certainly pointed to this real possibility. This in itself shows that even those who ought to know better are not deterred from violating global norms and established rules which they themselves have agreed to.