Letters & Opinion

WANTED — A 2020 Caribbean Conversation on Criteria for Elections Candidates

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Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

THERE are always elections every year in Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and in 2020 polls are due in six: Belize, Guyana, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Surinam and Trinidad & Tobago.

2021 election drums are also beating in Jamaica and Saint Lucia – even though not as loud as in the six countries to hold polls this year — and parties in all cases are quietly but quickly and fervently lining-up potential candidates for selection.

In 2020 and 2021 there will also be elections in neighbouring Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Mexico – and even possibly in Haiti, where elections due last year are still on the back burner while protest continue against a beleaguered president not about to show signs of exiting office.

All are crucial and each will need to be closely watched, especially from afar.

Except for Guyana, where the electoral system is based on Proportional Representation (PR) and Constituencies have been replaced by Regions, the other English-speaking CARICOM nations, all former British colonies, use the Westminster ‘first past the post’ electoral horserace approach of candidates facing-off against each other to represent constituencies in the nation’s parliament.

Selections and Elections
Traditionally in Caribbean countries with Westminster polls, candidates are selected according to a very wide range of circumstances – chosen by the Party Leader, recommended Constituency Groups, nominated by well-placed party persons, or the prospective candidate’s ability to be financially self-sustainable.

In many cases, the contesting parties are not known to have any firm set of written Rules for Selection, the processes instead mainly being driven by factors that alternate between Election by Constituency Groups and Selection by the Party Leadership.

In cases where there are multiple candidate-hopefuls, some parties engage in ‘Run-off’ exercises allowing registered supporters to choose, or natural processes of attrition result in the race ultimately being won by he or she who could most endure.

In all cases, however, candidate selection is perhaps the most important element in any party’s preparation for elections.

That being so, the question arises: Do the selection processes being employed today guarantee selection of the person best able to win?

Alongside that question comes another of twin import: Is the chosen candidate (elected or selected) ready, willing and able to do the job?

And both questions lead to a third: What is or should be the criteria for being an election candidate in the Caribbean in the 21st Century?

New Mechanism
Since the advent of the new millennium, this writer has been advocating creation of credible new national mechanisms to prepare persons interested in becoming candidates for elections, which entities would be supported by the Parties and the State to work with Parliament and other bodies to the common end.

Whatever called or named, the proposed entity would require parties to require prospective candidates to undertake a necessary preparation process aimed at chiseling them into shape for the job(s) they seek.

Hopefully, this process – mandated or not — will provide an agreed official level of minimum certification that persons presenting themselves for selection for political and gubernatorial office will have had some necessary preparatory exposure to the basic and rudimentary elements of representation.

For example: A person offering service as an election candidate is actually offering to wear as many as four caps on one head, should his or her party win – District Representative, Member of Parliament (MP), Cabinet Minister and (if called upon) Deputy Speaker (of the House of Assembly).

Should the party lose but the candidate win, or vice versa, the candidate should also be ready to be a District Representative and MP, Deputy Speaker — or a Senator, as, in some cases, parties also appoint specially-earmarked candidates to the Senate to boost their electoral readiness.

The proposed preparatory mechanism would prepare the potential candidate for each and all of the four jobs.

Ready, Willing and Able?
Then comes the matter of whether the person offering or being considered for candidacy is ready, willing and able, which can be addressed by a list of Candidate Selection Criteria that fits the times in 2020.

Indeed, the ultimate objective in any election is to win, so the ultimate objective in selection is to choose someone who can bring the seat home.

But history is too pregnant with proof why Caribbean election candidates today should not only be able to Win, but also to Serve.

Parties inevitably court disaster when they choose popular candidates who win the seat and then have to learn on the job, in the process making costly political mistakes rooted in misunderstanding of gubernatorial and parliamentary roles and functions.

In 2020, it makes no sense for candidates to offer themselves for service having absolutely no clue as to what are the rules governing whatever or wherever they will be responsible for.

They need to have at least some understanding of or exposure to the likes of basics as: Standing Orders of the House of Assembly and The Senate, Powers and Responsibilities of a Cabinet Minister, the Laws of the Land and The Constitution around which all revolves.

Then there are the responsibilities and expectations of a District Representative, apart from being a parliamentarian.

Voters who elected the winning candidate will look forward to delivery on promises to improve the constituency, but those who voted against are also constituents being represented, who will also benefit or lose, according to the MP’s delivery record.

The candidate will, should and ought to be ultimately assessed on the basis of delivery in and to the constituency – and should not be allowed to forget that representation is the first and last rung on the ladder of responsibilities.

The proposed preparatory mechanism would therefore need to develop a necessary list of Criteria for Candidates.

Among the Criteria, Potential Candidates will have to (among other things):
• Indicate interest at least 12 months before the constitutionally-due elections date
• Read and Understand: The Constitution, Parliamentary Rules and Standing Orders, Ministerial Roles and Responsibilities and the necessary Protocols of Representation and Governance
• Have a Program and Plan of Action for the Constituency to be presented during the campaign and expected to deliver on after victory
• Understand How Government Works
• Follow and remain informed about regional and international events and their national relevance, especially relating to Health, Housing, Education, Economics, Science and Technology, Sustainable Development, Innovation, Environment, Climate Change, Diplomacy, etc.
• Understand the Differences and Commonalities between CARICOM and the OECS, the Caribbean’s role in the OAS and at the UN and other entities
• Follow closely the politics of All Caribbean States and understand the issues in neighbouring Latin America

Some Caribbean parties also need to make their candidate selection processes more transparent, as different rules and approaches can apply on the same basis as ‘Different strokes for different folks’.

Among the things they can do:
• Set and publish Rules and Regulations with Criteria for Candidate Selection
• Allow registered party members in constituencies either the right or equal opportunity to choose on the basis of a common set of principles to be applied across the board
• In cases of Run-offs, each candidate to agree that whoever wins will be supported by all who lose

A tough bone of contention, however, is the matter of successful candidates not being opposed at the next elections.

Parties hardly seek to replace a candidate who won a seat. But there will always be cases when and where winning candidates fail the five-year performance test, in or out of office – especially as it relates to representation.

There should therefore be no automaticity about retaining a right to be re-selected on the basis of having won, if during the term the District Representative did not deliver.

Instead, a successful candidate should not only be judged on the basis of delivery on the parliamentary floor or from a ministerial chair, but — and most of all — on the basis of delivery as a District Representative, the main reason for having been elected.

Caribbean history is overloaded with examples too of persons elected to office becoming so ‘too busy’ that they don’t ‘get enough time’ to show a presence in the constituency, far less to deliver the promised goods.

In Westminster, the national interest must not be allowed to eclipse the local (constituency) interests in ways that isolate the elected candidate from the base that elected to select him or her.

It’s a slippery slope that MPs can underestimate to their and the party’s peril, a clear recipe for political suicide.

And what if the Party Leader loses his or her seat? Or the Party Leader is a fresh import without a seat and for who one needs to be created?

Should the new leader be given the party’s safest seat or have to demonstrate an ability to win?

But in 2020, is there anything like a ‘safe seat’?

There have been instances across the region where such seats have changed hands for reasons ranging from national mood change to complacency or sheer misrepresentation and even though still too slow for the pace of world affairs, Caribbean voters have learned more than just a thing or two about how to punish politicians who win their trust but don’t deliver.

Here too, considering any seat ‘safe’ in these times is another case of willfully drinking political cyanide tablets or donning an electoral suicide vest with the fuses alight.

Last Post…
No list of recommendations can be perfect, but these on offer here are for consideration with the hope they will inspire at least some attention to a matter that’s occupied the writer’s mind for decades.

The Caribbean may or may not need parties of a new type, but politics of a new type is long overdue in a region where countries and people are still adapting to nationhood following centuries of native genocide, slavery and colonialism.

Candidate selection for elections in the 2020s is a good place to start the beginning of the end of the old electoral order(s) designed to keep Britain’s Caribbean ex-colonies in the eternal grip of royal realm, with Constitutions they virtually cannot change and tied to branded electoral horseracing rules that do not certify that the first horse past the post will be the best to gallop into and between the other post(s) the race was raced for, in the first place.

That’s my Last Post!

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