The Jeff Cumberbatch Column – Anatomy of an Election Campaign
Ten days ago, on April 26, the Honourable Prime Minister of Barbados advised Her Excellency, the Governor General to issue the writs for a general election on May 24, thereby immediately bringing to an end the lamentations of all those who were devoutly wishing for this event. It also ended, at least for now, the intriguing constitutional issue of whether the Prime Minister does in our law possess the exclusive power of determining the date of the general election even after Parliament has been dissolved by effluxion of time and the related question of whether Cabinet government may constitutionally subsist for a substantial period without parliamentary oversight.
Given that there is a likelihood of the recurrence of such an eventuality, Barbadians should seek now to have an authoritative determination of these issues, but the sense of relief and euphoria felt at the fact that the proverbial bell has been rung, added to the arcane nature of that debate will probably quell any such initiative…until next time. “Que dire [Cuddear]”, I can hear Barbadians say, “the matter has been resolved, what more do we need?”
And so, for the next few weeks, the island will be consumed by events from the mundane such as the occasion of payment of the deposit into the Treasury by prospective candidates, to the much more significant nomination process on May 7, the enthusiasm, entertainment and revelry of public and spot meetings and the nail-biting tension of the night of the count.
Most remarkable about the current campaign has been the number of political groupings and independent individuals that have declared their intention of contesting the various constituency elections. Indeed, one recent Barbados Advocate editorial has not inaccurately described it “a party of parties”.
This phenomenon is understandable. While the closeness of the result in the 2013 general election might have been considered by some to be owed to a popular indecision to choose between the two major political parties, there are equally those who regarded it as a rejection of both parties (the duopoly) with the less objectionable grouping being ultimately successful. Into this presumed vacuum of popular choice, should naturally come the alternative grouping that we collectively dub a third party, no matter the number or provenance of them.
The road for these new groupings has not been all smoothly paved. Along with the potholes of an expulsion and enforced defection, one such third party has been forced to contend with the rather unfounded allegation noised abroad that its sole purpose is to ensure a negative electoral outcome for one of the traditional parties. Another, founded on the arguably simplistic premise that every local public ill might be cured by a business management application, has also sought to enforce the loyalty of its prospective candidates by having them agree to be mulct in damages for what appears to me to be an unenforceable penal sum, in the event the party should form the next governing administration and he or she should resile from any one of a list of scheduled policies, notably formulated at a time when none of its members has any experience in public office. Might this not serve as a deterrent to probable success?
Another incident of the campaign is the degree of attention being focused on the corrupt practice of bribery, already criminalized locally under section 6 of the Election Offences and Controversies Act, Cap.3. The Honourable Prime Minister himself would scarcely have assisted the national clarity on this matter when, with tongue firmly fixed in cheek, I feel sure, he counseled voters to take any money offered. Subtlety is oftentimes lost on an unwitting audience, and the advice was always liable to be taken literally. Perhaps Mr. Stuart needed to explain himself further.
Incidentally, he appears to be in good company. Last week, while researching material for my column on Clennell Wickham’s fate at the hands of the jury in the 1930 Bailey libel case, I encountered the following in Sir Hilary Beckles’ “A History of Barbados”. The setting is the 1951 general election–
“[Grantley] Adams advised workers not to corrupt their newly won franchise by accepting the bribes of money and rum from the Electors’ Association, while [Wynter] Crawford urged them:
On Election Day, vote right. If money is offered to you for your vote, TAKE I, You need it. They owe it to you!! But don’t let that prevent you from VOTING RIGHT. Remember the ballot is secret No one can know how you vote except yourself and God! [Emphasis added]
In pursuit, no doubt, of its mission to suppress the commission of crime, the Royal Barbados Police Force understandably has publicly declared its intention of vigorously preventing the commission of this offence. Nevertheless, as I have argued in this space previously, the local statutory provisions governing this offence are largely ineffective, unless one should wish selectively to prosecute solely the transaction involving money and that on election day only. It would equally be a corrupt practice under the relevant statute to transfer any form of consideration outside of that day, like now, and with the identical likelihood of compliance by the elector to boot.
Already, political scientists, both trained and uninitiated, are seeking to isolate the issues destined to form the agenda of the respective platforms. This, I suppose, ids premised on the thesis that most Barbadians remain neutral until they are apprised of the various party positions on the economy or on the prevention of corruption, let’s say, and then dispassionately compare and distil these to decide whom they will support. I doubt this very much.
The general election, [in essence, thirty  constituency by-elections] is not at all comparable to a high-school debate. It is more critical by far. For it involves the populace choosing first, the individual and, second, the administration that they would want to be the other party to the social contract between the state and themselves for the next quinquennium at least.