Post 381.

As election season blows in, many of us, perhaps a growing number, continue to hope that political parties will fight a clean campaign. I think particularly of young people, voting and perhaps paying attention for the first time, and the example they will see. I think of the young women being trained by the Caribbean Institute for Women in Leadership (CIWiL) and their fears they have about the greater risks they face as future candidates when the fight for power gets dirty.

In hoping for a clean battle, ordinary citizens have a tool to hold parties to account. It is a Code of Ethical Political Conduct, first created in 2014 and revised last year in time for the Local Government election. The Code is available on the website, www.politicalethicstt.org, and provides a basis for complaints to a Council for Responsible Political Behaviour, comprising citizens and political parties.

I joined the Council last year, as a representative of the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women, and have learned a lot since. The Code encourages peaceful, free and fair elections, tolerance and respect for human rights. It secures parties’ commitment to refrain from practices that promote divisiveness and violence. All political parties – including emerging and small ones – should be a signatory to the Code, which means that they agree to uphold the integrity of the electoral process in their own campaign and in that of their rivals.

This may sound like a lot of nice, but ineffectual words except they refer to real challenges we face. In the last weeks, we have seen personal attacks on candidates in San Juan/Barataria, allegations of biased hamper distribution in some constituencies, racially-opportunistic posturing by sitting MPs, and even months of instability in Guyana created by lack of electoral integrity. The goal is to stop descent into hate and violence through building consensus on some basic ethics to which we can all agree.

All over the world, codes such as these are used by citizens to report abuses of persons and power, and to argue that basic decency should not be collateral damage of politicians’ ground war. From a broader perspective, we should do whatever we can wherever we can to promote peace, for a more politically peaceful society is also one with greater peacefulness in communities and families.

The Council starts election monitoring three months prior to 5th anniversary date of the last election, or three months before an election is normally considered due. It monitors political parties, candidates and supporters’ adherence to the code, often on the basis of citizens’ complaints of violation of the Code to the Council web page, or the email info@politicalethicstt.org.

I’ve been impressed and guided by the complaints that come in, which show how many citizens value fairness, are appalled by demeaning language and disgusted by corruption, and believe that candidates’ gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and religion should not be attacked or a basis for discrimination.  

The Code also prohibits use of rewards, such as money and groceries, to induce citizens to join a party, attend a public meeting or vote for a candidate. I wrote my PhD on, among other things, election campaigning in a marginal constituency in 2002, and I can tell you, with full certainty from over a year of fieldwork, that inducements were common practice then, particularly for a party in power with access to welfare and other resources.

Poor voters would be threatened with loss of CEPEP or URP jobs if they didn’t visibly campaign. Poor people are smarter than politicians though. For all of them would talk about wearing the shirt and waving the flag, before voting how they choose. In a sense, this is why political parties get desperate and resort to all kinds of shadowy strategies – particularly when it is a close call, as in this election, and when momentum builds to do anything you must to win.

The Code enables us to not simply be voters, but to informally govern the hustings and to assert the terms and conditions by which competing parties should abide. It gives us power during the campaign and not just at the ballot box. It says that ‘we the people’ are watching. The Council has no legal teeth, but ethical words and deeds should not have to be enforced with a heavy hand. They should be a symbol of all that a party stands for, and being regularly reminded of that expectation by a cross-section of citizens should suffice.