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by Garth Patterson
“ . . . all types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition.” – Give Us the Ballot address delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, w17 May, 1957.
Democracy is more than an abstract political concept. It is a living conviction, an immutable principle by which all civilised societies that recognise the innate worth and equality of its citizens are governed.
It recognises the primacy of the people in the governance of their own affairs and the consensual subordination of the elected representatives to the will of the represented. It embodies the audacious notion of governance by the people.
In her remarks at the Virtual Summit on Democracy, hosted just over a month ago, on December 9, 2021, by the President of the United States of America, Prime Minister Mottley described Barbados as “a country which though small in size, has played no mean role in the promotion, preservation and protection of democracy and democratic traditions for several decades.”
She made her remarks “conscious of our commitment to democracy within our country as the world’s newest Parliamentary Republic.”
Saying that freedom of the press, freedom of elections, freedom of movement or freedom of association are not issues for us in the English-speaking Caribbean, the Prime Minister considered that the real issue “is more encouraging active citizenship to support the architecture of our democracy, recognising that democracy comes in many shapes and forms.”
“Fundamentally, democracy must always be about people,” she declared. “Our people and our countries … must be both the agents and beneficiaries of democracy. We must work each and every day on this. We must walk the walk and not just talk the talk.”
With the General Election mere days away, this Government must decide if it is prepared to walk the walk, or else concede that its much-vaunted commitment to democracy is bare ‘ole talk’.
It must choose the type of republic that our new Republic will become and how it will be perceived – either one that leads the world in not just espousing democratic principles, but also staunchly and resolutely defending them; or just another banana republic that eschews the rule of law and democratic norms and subordinates the will and national interests of the body politic to the whim and exigencies of the political ruling class.
The right to vote is foundational in any democracy; it is the bedrock on which democratic societies are built. It is the megaphone by which the voice of each citizen is heard in the selection of his or her Parliamentary representative.
One man (woman), one vote – that is the essence of universal suffrage – an affirmation of the inviolate right of every qualified voter to have a say in his or her destiny.
The Constitution mandates that our electoral laws shall be designed to ensure that any person qualified to vote at a general election has a reasonable opportunity of voting. And the Representation of the People Act declares that every qualified elector is entitled to vote.
With over 4,500 souls in isolation and thousands more in quarantine, and no indication that the COVID directives will be lifted and/or any safe and appropriate arrangements will be made to facilitate their voting, the Government is decidedly on a dangerous collision course with democracy.
The COVID-19 pandemic provides no excuse for the jettisoning of democratic norms and traditions, nor any justification for blithely ignoring the law.
In a 2020 briefing paper entitled, Managing Elections in the Context of COVID-19: Perspectives from the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth Secretariat has admonished: “All considerations for managing elections during the pandemic should be framed by the rule of law and should have a legal basis. It is through adherence to the rule of law that the democratic and constitutional order will remain on track despite difficult decisions that may need to be made regarding elections during this period.”
We are daily witnesses to the unrelenting threats to democracy across the globe and, if Barbados is to retain its standing in the international community, it behooves the Government to heed the sage counsel of the Secretariat and the salutary example of its Commonwealth counterparts.
It is no small thing to dismissively disenfranchise thousands of otherwise qualified voters, with no credible justification or explanation.
If the Government wants to avoid squandering the mandate that it legitimately won in 2018, then it still can, and must, prioritise and respect the inviolate right of all Barbadians of voting age to participate in the electoral process.
It should immediately suspend the elections for a further 30 days and urgently make the necessary arrangements to facilitate voting by all qualified voters, regardless of their medical status.
If more time is needed, then summon Parliament and amend the ROPA to create the extra time.
Do whatever is necessary, within the bounds of the law, no matter how inconvenient that may be.
As Prime Minister Mottley once declared, “principles only mean something when it is inconvenient to stand by them.” Fundamental democratic principles should never be sacrificed at the altar of expedience.
It’s not too late for the Government to demonstrate the inspired leadership that has been the hallmark of this administration by correcting this undemocratic course and supporting the architecture of democracy instead.
A mandate salvaged from the ashes of democracy is no mandate at all. An electoral process that deliberately excludes thousands of qualified voters lacks the imprint of legitimacy and can only produce an illegitimate Government.
I appeal to the Prime Minister: let the enduring legacy of this administration be that it forged our
Republic from the unbreakable steel of democratic principles; and that, when it mattered most, it put the people first.
After all, that is who democracy is about.
Garth Patterson Q.C. is a Senior Partner of Lex Caribbean. He was called to the Bars of Jamaica and Barbados in 1987 and the Bars of New York and St. Lucia in 1990 and 2011 respectively.