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When comparing the relative political stability of Britain’s former colonies in the Commonwealth Caribbean with the lack thereof in former British colonies in Africa and Asia and the former colonies of other major powers reference is sometimes made to Huffington’s ‘two-turnover test’(S Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman, University of Oklahoma `Press, 1991). That is to say, since independence successive governments across the region have respected the outcomes of elections and have peacefully surrendered power to their successors. Notwithstanding their often ‘rambunctious’ nature, Commonwealth Caribbean elections are thus often held up as a vital sign of the region’s commitment to democracy along Westminster lines (JI Dominguez, ‘The Caribbean Question: Why has Liberal Democracy (Surprisingly) Flourished?’ in JI Dominguez et al (eds), Democracy in the Caribbean (Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1993).
However, this picture of 50 odd years of post-independence political stability, punctuated by carnival-like general elections once every four or five years, does not bear too close scrutiny. The reality is that in the post-independence era Commonwealth Caribbean elections have, sometimes, been violent affairs. In Jamaica, for example, there were 800 murders attributed to political violence at the time of 1980 general elections. In Guyana, in 1997 a dispute about the election results led to a sustained period of post-election violence and rioting. In some countries in the region elections have also been decidedly fraudulent affairs. This is especially true of Guyana during the era of Forbes Burnham, which witnessed a number of ‘rigged’ elections following independence in 1966 (D.O’Brien, Constitutional Law Systems of the Commonwealth Caribbean (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2014). As the international team of observers led by Lord Avebury noted in its report on the 1980 election:
We came to Guyana aware of the serious doubts expressed about the conduct of previous elections there, but determined to judge these elections on their own merit and hoping that we should be able to say that the result was fair. We deeply regret that, on the contrary, we were obliged to conclude, on the basis of abundant and clear evidence, that the election was rigged massively and flagrantly (Report of the International Team of Observers at the Election of Guyana, Something to Remember (London, Latin American Bureau, 1980).
Elections in Antigua and Barbuda under the Bird dynasty, during the 1980s and 1990s, were no better. It was widely suspected that the governing party Antigua Labour party (ALP), led by Lester Bird, had used its influence over the Supervisor of Elections to manipulate the electoral process. Evidence of this can be found in the several reports of independent observers of elections during this period, which document some very serious incidents of malpractice. These include: double-voting; the removal of the names of eligible voters from the electoral register; and the inflation of the register by 25 per cent as a result of the inclusion of the names of people who had died or migrated. Most serious of all was the violation of the confidentiality of the voting booth; with electoral officers noting each voter’s registration number on the counterfoil of the ballot paper. This would have had serious ramifications for anyone on the government payroll or otherwise obligated to the ALP (DW Payne, ‘The Failings of Governance in Antigua and Barbuda: The Elections of 1999’ (1999) Policy Papers on the Americas, Vol X, Study 4). Eventually, however, following the recommendation of an independent Commonwealth Observer Group on the conduct of the 1999 elections, the Government was persuaded to establish an Electoral Commission which, along with the Supervisor of Elections, would, henceforth, have responsibility for the conduct of elections.
Notwithstanding the establishment of this Electoral Commission, however, the conduct of elections in Antigua remains a highly contested affair. This is most clearly demonstrated by two recent cases on appeal to the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court (ECSC), a regional court of appeal for the independent eastern Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Dominica, Grenada, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia and St Vincent as well as well as the British Overseas Territories of Anguilla, Montserrat and the British Virgin Islands. In both cases the appellant was Gaston Browne, the leader of the Opposition ALP.
The first case, Browne v AG Antigua and Barbuda, concerned a challenge to the constitutionality of section 5 of the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act 2010 ROP(A)A, which had amended s.16 of the Representation of People Act 1992 by extending the residency qualification for Commonwealth citizens who wished to register to vote, from three to seven years. Section 6 of ROP(A)A had also amended the period within which all persons who were qualified to vote were required to apply for registration as an elector. There were three main strands to the appellant’s challenge.
The first was that the procedure for amending the specially entrenched provisions of the Constitution had not been followed. In the appellant’s submission, by restricting the right of Commonwealth citizens to vote to those who had been resident for seven years ROP(A)A had altered the provisions on voting contained in s.40(3) of the Constitution. In particular, the right of Commonwealth citizens to vote was now being restricted to those who qualified to be citizens of Antigua and Barbuda by virtue of having been resident for seven years. Since s.40 was an entrenched provision it could only be altered, it was argued, by means of a two-thirds majority vote of all the members of the House of Representatives followed by similar two-thirds majority in a referendum. In the Court’s view, however, the right of Commonwealth citizens to vote was dependent on registration in accordance with s.40[2) of the Constitution, which provides that from time to time parliament may by ordinary legislation pass laws prescribing the qualifications relating to residence and domicile for Commonwealth citizens to be eligible to vote. ROP(A)A did not, therefore, involve an amendment to the Constitution per se: it merely changed the eligibility of Commonwealth citizens to register as a voter and the Constitution contemplated that such a change could be effected by ordinary legislation.
The second strand of the appellant’s argument concerned the fundamental nature of the right to vote, which according to the appellant meant that any interference with the right had to satisfy the proportionality test outlined by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in deFreitas v Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Lands and Housing. In the court’s view, however, the right to vote was a constituional right and not a fundamental right since it was not included in the list of fundamental rights to be found in Chapter II – an interesting distinction in the light of the current debate about prisoners’ right to vote under the European Convention of Human Rights. The changing of the period of residence for Commonwealth citizens to be registered as electors did not, therefore, attract or engage the requirement of proportionality.
The third strand was concerned with the retrospective effect of the legislation upon two groups of voters. The first group comprised existing Commonwealth citizens who would, henceforth, not be able to vote if they did not satisfy the new residency test. According to the appellant, these Commonwealth citizens, who would have been entitled to vote under the former legislation, would now be required to re-register on pain of de-registration under a new regime of proof and with a more onerous residence qualification. The Court did not, however, accept that this meant the legislation had retrospective effect. Statutory provisions which affect existing rights prospectively, such as the provisions of ROP(A)A were not, in the Court’s view, retroactive . In so far as there was an interference with an existing right – in respect of registration and voting – it was sanctioned by the Constitution. The second group of voters comprised all of those who were required to re-register to vote as a result of ROP(A)A. According to the appellant, their registration as voters under s.19 of the Representation of the People Act 2001 was continuous and since s.19 had not been amended by ROP(A) A the actions of the Electoral Commission in requiring these voters to re-register was ultra vires. In the Court’s view, however, the right to be registered to vote under s.40 of the Constitution did not confer on a person an entitlement to be registered for the purposes of voting ad infinitum or in perpetuity. Registration to vote was always subject to s.40(3) of the Constitution which empowered parliament to prescribe the qualifications relating to residence or domicile as from time to time. Furthermore, the re-registration process was necessary to ensure that all persons registered to vote were so entitled based on the new residency criteria.
The second and related appeal heard by the ECSC was Browne v Constituencies Boundaries Commission. This case concerned the implementation of certain constituency boundary changes following a report by the Constituencies Boundaries Commission (CBC) published in June 2010. The appellant challenged the boundary changes proposed by the CBC on two main grounds. Firstly, that they amounted to gerrymandering and that the CBC was infected by bias. Secondly, that the period allowed by the CBC for consultation was inadequate, having regard to the Constituencies Boundaries Commission Guidance Act 2012 (the Guidance Act). The appeal was allowed, but solely on the ground that the consultation by the CBC had been inadequate.
Dismissing the first ground of appeal, the Court held that in order to succeed with an allegation of gerrymandering the appellant would have had to show two things: firstly, that the CBC altered the boundaries and that the alterations had the effect of diluting or weakening the ALP’s support in those altered constituencies; and, secondly, that the CBC so altered the boundaries precisely with view to achieving that effect. The appellants had failed to show either.
So far as the charge of bias was concerned the Court noted that the composition of the CBC was governed by s.63 of the Constitution. This provision, which is similar to provisions to be found in several other Caribbean Constitutions, requires the CBC to comprise a Chairman appointed in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister after the latter has consulted with the Leader of the Opposition, two other members appointed in accordance with advice of the Prime Minister, and one member appointed with the advice of the Leader of the Opposition. This meant that the CBC was essentially composed of party supporters, affiliates and activists, thereby infecting and undermining the impartiality of and public confidence in the CBC. As Singh JA had observed with regard to the composition of the CBC in Dominica in Constituency Boundaries Commission and Another v Baron:
It is my considered opinion that such a commission will always lean more towards political loyalty than constitutional integrity. What would assist in order to avoid the appearance of this mischief of bias is that if, when members are to be recommended to the President [the Governor-General] the respective politicians give names of those who are less politically conspicuous. Life would be so much simpler.
However, in the Court’s view, so long as the composition of the CBC was in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution there would be a ‘presumption of impartiality’. The presumption could only be rebutted by leading cogent evidence. This the appellant had failed to do.
The Court did, nevertheless accept that the CBC’s failure to allow sufficient time for the appellant to respond to its preliminary proposals for boundary changes, coupled with the CBC’s failure to provide the appellant with printed maps depicting the proposed changes, meant that the CBC had failed in its statutory duty to consult pursuant to s.3(2) of the Guidance Act. What this means in practice remains to be seen, but the judgment came too late to implement the boundary changes recommended by the CBC in time for the 2014 elections.
Both of these judgments touch upon a multiplicity of legal issues – the constitutional status of the right to vote, the relationship between the constitutional right to vote and amendments to the registration process, the composition of election management bodies, such as the CBC, and the duty of such bodies to consult – which will be of interest to those concerned with the conduct of elections and electoral reform generally. Arguably, however, their chief interest lies in what the judgments reveal about the intensity of Commonwealth Caribbean politics and the willingness of local politicians to use every weapon at their disposal, including litigation, in pursuit of an electoral advantage. Here, the Leader of the Opposition, Gaston Browne, was convinced that the changes to the residence qualification for Commonwealth citizens and the proposed boundary changes would favour the governing United Progressive Party. What he could not have known at the time that he embarked on this litigation was that, notwithstanding the changes to the residence qualification for Commonwealth citizens, his party would go on to a resounding victory in the 2014 elections, winning 14 out of the 17 seats available.
Though there may be many cultural and social factors that contribute to the intensity of elections in the region a key factor is, undoubtedly, size. Commonwealth Caribbean countries are some of the smallest in the world: Antigua and Barbuda, for example, has 47,000-plus voters, divided into 17 constituencies, making the average number of voters in a constituency just over 2,500. When you combine the winner takes all nature of the ‘first past the post’ system, which is the system of choice for all the countries in the region (with the exception of Guyana which has adopted the party list system), with such small constituency sizes it is inevitable that politicians will wish to fight over every vote. Thankfully, however, on this occasion, at least, the fight was played out in the courts.
Derek O’Brien is Reader in Law, Law School, Oxford Brookes University, and Caribbean Correspondent for the UKCLA Blog .
Suggested citation: D. O’Brien, ‘Commonwealth Caribbean Elections’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (29th July 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).