By Staff Writer
Supervisor of Elections Wesley Howell and his team at the Cayman Islands Elections Office have received a resounding vote of approval from the Domestic Observers for the management of the recent general election.
Presenting their report this week, the local monitoring team, believed to be the first of its kind in Cayman, praised the Elections Office, with team-leader Hadleigh Roberts saying they “offer the unqualified opinion that the election was held to a very high standard.”
“We believe that the 2021 Cayman Islands general election was credible and legitimate, resulting as it did in an orderly transition from one government to the next. The Cayman Islands is a safe and stable democracy with a respectable record of consistently high voter turnout and engagement with the electoral process. In our observation, everyone can have full confidence in the administration of the election and the electoral process as a whole. And above all, another strong example of democracy in the Cayman Islands", Mr Roberts concluded.
The endorsement of the electoral process came as the post-mortem continues into the campaigning for the April 14th snap election and in its aftermath, the bitterness which marred the government formation negotiations.
“We believe that the election regulations were applied fairly uniformly and equitably,” the team reported. “We did not identify or observe any illegal electoral activities by voters, party's political competitors, the media, or the electoral authorities,” it stated, adding that: “We will not speculate on allegations made or any potential investigations.”
However, it did find that some areas, although not examples of critical shortcomings, which warrant some tweaking to further improve the overall system.
In all there were 23 recommendations in the report, including a suggestion for a political ombudsman, closing a loophole that could affect ballot secrecy, and tightening up the system of campaign financing and political donations., and media coverage.
Regarding a political ombudsman, the Domestic Observer team said: “We recommend the creation of a body, capable of dealing with complaints, and disputes, as well as providing official guidelines on campaigning, the conduct of political organisations, and the role of the media, in a way that does not extend to criminal offences.”
It adds that, “It is up to the new parliament to decide on its role and structure, if it wishes to pursue this policy.”
On the matter of campaigning financing, while noting that “it is beyond our resources to recommend any specific financial structure”, the Domestic Observer team however stated: “But it is clear that political financing is ready for comprehensive reform. It is up to the new parliament to decide in which direction, and how far it wishes to go to promote transparency and accountability and campaign financing, considering both income and expenditure.”
In recommending that political financing “becomes a priority in any review of the elections framework”, the team said “our suggestions include greater transparency of the elected members Register of Interests. We also put forward ideas for a register of political donations made, and received, and the framework for lobbying and lobbyists would also seem appropriate. It may be worth considering the role of third party financing.”
Speaking for the team, Mr Roberts pointed out that: “Crucially, we observed a small loophole in the law that there is little recourse against unsuccessful candidates who fail to submit expenses declaration. And so we recommend that the loophole be closed.”
The report devotes considerable attention to the role of the media in the overall electoral process, noting that “the media has substantial influence over the electoral process through the way it frames political issues, portrays political competitors in a certain light and shapes public opinion.”
“With the exception of radio, which is regulated by OfReg, the media industry in the Cayman Islands is unregulated. There exists no industry association or industry guidance, code of conduct or criteria. Although the major media organisations publish their policies and procedures for public inspection and their coverage reflected unbiased and impartial coverage, not all media organisations currently operating in the Cayman Islands make such efforts,” the Domestic Observers note.
Addressing several issues on the media’s coverage of the election it concluded:
“We cannot at this time recommend a full regulatory system but there is a need to consider the media’s role at election time. The emphasis should be on the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression to encourage critical yet fair coverage, with awareness of the media’s ability to influence as well as report on the electoral process.”
UNIQUE POLITICAL LANDSCAPE
One aspect of the elections postmortem in the public domain is the issue of the parties in Cayman’s political landscape.
Coming out of the April elections the current government is formed by a coalition of all independent candidates, although some did campaign as part of informal teams, a system that has characterised politics in the jurisdiction.
“There’s only, I believe, two official registered parties, but visually, if you put yourself in the shoes of a voter you can clearly identify a number of different political forces. Now, I know in Cayman there's a bit of a legacy issue with the term party so we say political organisation, political grouping. Sometimes these are referred to as teams,” Mr Roberts observed.
In that context, he said it’s a matter for the Parliament.
“It’s up to the new Parliament what structure it wishes to implement but we note that in the Elections Act, there are only a couple of sections (...) that deal with the registration of political parties, but there's no real framework for when a party should be registered or how organisations are governed so that's also something that I think is certainly worth looking and producing some guidelines for.”
In its report, the Domestic Observer team states: “We recommend the development of a framework for political parties that promotes political stability and improves democratic accountability. For example, as part of a general overhaul of the political financing system, there could be an additional spending allowance permitted to party organisations in addition to a district spend per candidate.”
It further states that “this could also provide greater transparency of financing of candidates between elections and that it would, in turn, allow allied candidates to share the costs of political advertising, office space and build a network of volunteers reducing the role of finance in the electoral process.
“A framework for lobbying and lobbyists seems appropriate and it may be worth considering the role of third-party financing,” it adds.
COMMONWEALTH REPORT DUE MID-JUNE
Another report on the elections, that one by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the international observers who monitored the process remotely, is expected by mid-June.
In advance of the publication of the CPA report, the Domestic Observer team recalled that recommendations in the previous report are yet to be fully implemented. With some exceptions it said, there appeared to have been little action taken on the recommendations made by the international observers in 2017, ostensibly for lack of legislative time.
However it advised that key outstanding recommendations should be “given appropriate consideration.” These include; the Grand Court’s decisions on the eligibility of candidates of dual nationality, coherence of the exclusion from public office for persons who have served a prison sentence of 12 months or more, and the applicability of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities regarding restrictions on the right to vote if a person is certified to be of unsound mind.
Another recommendation is that Cayman follow the UK and also take action to expand its voting population to avoid disenfranchisement and associated political problems. It said The burden of residency requirements should be eased if they cannot be removed altogether.
The Domestic Observers were commended for their work by HE Governor Martyn Roper. He welcomed their report which he said “confirmed that the election was entirely legitimate and credible” and reflected Cayman’s “strong reputation for holding free and fair elections.”
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