Over the course of last week, I participated in the XIII Inter-American meeting of Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) which was held in the Dominican Republic.
Organized by the Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation (DECO), this was the second such meeting to be held in the Caribbean, with Jamaica having hosted the other in September 2012. As a regular observer of Caribbean elections for the OAS Observation Missions, it was of course my privilege to be asked to present on the critical democratic topic, To Regulate or not to Regulate? Challenges in Establishing Electoral Campaign Spending Limits. The other Caribbean presenter was Rosina Wiltshire, Consultant in International Development and Gender Equality, who works closely with CARICOM on gender-related issues.
Entirely funded by the host country, the hemispheric meet attracted participants from across Latin and Central America but, unfortunately and disappointedly, several Caribbean countries were noticeably absent and so could not benefit from the networking and learning from their counterparts in the Election Commissions. There were some powerful interventions from a number of countries, and if nothing else these interventions always expose the weaknesses of the regional EMBs and the scant regard given to these bodies that have to operate in a politically charged environment. So there were participants from St Vincent and the Grenadines (1), Suriname (2), St Kitts-Nevis (1), Haiti (4), Dominica (1) Trinidad and Tobago (1) and Barbados who was represented by the Commission’s chairperson John Haynes. John Haynes, I discovered, is a wonderfully informal individual, approachable and eager to advance the work of the Commission. But we know that there are challenges.
As I said, this is a yearly event which focuses on developments and best practices that will, and have impacted the electoral environment and which it is hoped can lead to proactive initiatives and, if not, then the adoption wherever possible of best practice. And there is much that we can learn from Bolivia, Mexico, Canada, and the Dominican Republic, just to name a few. But the OAS typically provides such forum for regional bodies and I do recall attending my first meeting in Mexico several years ago which was an eye opener and, above all, exposed to me the limitations of the regional media. At the time, Mexico was in the throes of a pending election and the most anticipated guest was the frontrunner for the presidential elections. It was not surprising that it attracted media from all across Latin America, not to speak of Mexico. But what was amazing was the adept and frankly speaking, fearless manner in which a relatively young journalist from Argentina (to the best of my recollection), managed the plenary with the main attraction, Enrique Peña Nieto, who went on to win the elections and who held the presidency from 2012-2018. He never relented and spoke truth to power, demanding explanations in a way which was clearly unheard of in this part of the region. This was a powerful man, and the young journalist would not give an inch. At the end of the session, I had to seek him out to congratulate him on his bravery and he quite flippantly said to me “that is our job; we cannot allow politicians to escape with platitudes”. I have never forgotten the exchanges and I guess this reaffirmed my issues with regional media houses, even though I recognize their constraints. There is just much too much deference.
This year, apart from the imperative of political finance regulation, the meet focused on social networks, polling, gender and political representation, and regulating the media. In addition, there was a space created for a book presentation (without the book being available for purchase). And it is really to the author’s representations that I wish to address the rest of my column today.
For a few months, I have held in my Amazon cart a book which I thought would make some interesting read but I just did not buy. Having taken a look at the agenda, the decision was made to remove the item from my cart as I hoped to purchase an autographed copy at the meet. Alas, I was to be disappointed, for the authors assumed that the meet would be one where perhaps just Spanish-speaking people would be gathered. So it is back in my cart, more so as the issues are very relevant for the Caribbean and certainly Barbados. Now, having not as yet read the book, I am relying on the author’s claims of their general thesis and the terrain covered.
I do not think that they covered the Caribbean in the way that the Caribbean needs to be covered but that is the norm, and in a sense I can appreciate that, given that one of the authors is intimately connected to Indian politics for instance. So some of the claims made about the manner in which politicians react when they confront difficulties is understandably coloured by some Asian experience which is vastly different to the Caribbean for instance.
We often represent a footnote in most works covering major issues, so that Caribbean people must engage the issues ourselves in a publishing environment outside the region which has little interest (I am not saying none) in things Caribbean, unless it is comparative in nature (meaning that we look at the global and then localize). Moreover, many such individuals undertaking research of that nature are embedded in research and policy institutions with access to major funding which we clearly do not have. It is also clear, having listened to the authors, that a number of assumptions were made, yet the work is a sound methodological one and has profound implications for the people of the region.
My suggestion is that all who are interested in elections and appreciate the significance of credible elections as well as how the financial status of a country will impact electoral politics should rush to place their order. Elections in hard times: building stronger democracies in the 21st century, written by Irfan Nooruddin and Thomas Edward Flores and published in 2016 by Cambridge University Press, is a must-read based on all that I heard and read thus far. Nooruddin is a Professor of Indian Politics at the Georgetown University and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington. Flores is an associate professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, Virginia. Both come with a wealth of experience and publishing record.
Nooruddin and Flores make several claims:
· The democratizing power of election has collapsed. Since the late 1980s, there has been an explosion of countries holding democratic elections. In what they describe as a gigantic shift from an earlier period, they posit the view that this represents a boom in democratic expansion, which also ironically meant that those countries holding elections are less experienced in holding elections. So, whereas elections should help fuel greater democratic progress in the last 15 years, they have failed to do so.
· Electoral integrity is essential to democracy but, unfortunately, higher integrity does little to boost long-term democratic dividends from elections.
That is the conundrum, the puzzle which the authors attempt to unravel. Part of the puzzle may be explained by the limited democratic experience of countries within Latin America representing success stories of global democratization. In Europe, a clear line can be drawn between the older democracies and the younger ones, where it seems that elections in the late comers have not led to a situation where states have been able to build on previous elections in terms of consolidating democracy. Democracy there has therefore flattened, compared to Latin America where it is on the incline (I will treat this next week).
· Democratic gains are assisted by the existence of favourable structural conditions for good elections that increase the window through which democratic gains can be consolidated. In the absence of these favourable conditions, that “window closes very, very quickly”.
· The democratic dividend of a successfully staged election dwindles immediately thereafter. Among the most important reasons flagged by the authors for this apparent lean democratic gains/expansion is “the lack of fiscal space for government officials to implement policies and with it the spectre of conflict which is apparent in a number of countries.
· Because politicians must seek re-election, sometimes in two, four or five years, in a context of tight fiscal space, they are often not in a position to mount a campaign based on public policy, given the lack of fiscal capacity to enact public policy and the political institutions with which to implement that policy. Given this limitation, politicians seeking re-election revert to base political issues. They turn to identity politics, leveraging ethnic and clan rivalries, religious images and cast images”.
While this is certainly reminiscent of Asian, Latin American and African politics, I am positive that outside of countries like Guyana, Suriname, and possibly Trinidad and Tobago, this is not possible. But it may give us an insight into why the Democratic Labour Party was unable to mount a campaign based on policy. We will have to judge in the next four and a half years, given the sorry fiscal state that Barbados finds itself in, whether this also holds true for the Barbados Labour Party. It is early days yet. But I found it quite interesting that the authors noted that since 2005, the average rich country essentially received or extracted between US$7,500 and US$8,000 per citizen which could be used to get re-elected. The rest of the world was a mere US$100. This is evidently the case for Africa where governments have not been able to raise taxes and consequently were unable to use these tax dollars for policy purposes and re-election.
· Re-election bids in a situation of tight policy space means a preference for other strategies which are clearly undemocratic. These include muzzling of the media and the tendency to engage in cheating strategies, among other things.
Now, despite some questions that I have and which some of the delegates at the meet posed, which the authors must respond to; despite the tendency to engage in econometrics and quantitative analysis (meaning graphs, lines, etcetera, something that I have great difficulty with – my unquestionable limitation), Elections in hard times: building stronger democracies in the 21st century promises to be much more than a useful read, and ought to be on the shelf of every person interested in integrity based elections and the implications for democratic strengthening, especially in a context where there is little fiscal space.
In the next few weeks I will explore other issues raised by this meet organized by the OAS. Well done, bravo DECO! We need more!
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)