By Hayden Boyce
Publisher & Editor-in-Chief
Turks & Caicos Sun
After stating that they intend to hold general elections in the Turks and Caicos Islands by summer next year, the Interim Government has once again changed course and is now saying they will be held by the end of 2012.
What is interesting and noteworthy, is that Philip Rushbrook, a spokesman from the Governor's Office, said that the new Electoral Register of voters, the final component of the election preparations, “is unlikely to be ready until September 2012”.
This, together with wide-spread uncertainty about the Interim Government’s ability to meet their own milestones, has fuelled speculation that elections to return the Turks and Caicos Islands to self-rule will not be held in 2012, but rather in 2013.
On Monday 20th September 2010, Overseas Minister Henry Bellingham announced the postponement of the elections scheduled for July 2011 in the Turks and Caicos Islands. The delay was to allow time for further important work to take place on public financial management and good governance reform in the TCI and allow time for the reforms to become fully embedded.
In a document to the media entitled “Preparations Required Before a Future Election”, Rushbrook said: “When the decision is made for the new Constitution to come into force an election is expected to follow within thirty days. Elections are not spontaneous events. Careful preparations are necessary, particularly in TCI where the new Constitution has made several changes to what existed before. These preparations are at an early stage and the aim is to complete them between now and next year. A programme of work has been planned and discussed recently at the Advisory Council. Its principal intention is to replace or update ordinances and procedures to ensure future elections are representative and conform to the new Constitution.”
Rushbrook was careful not to be date-specific on the introduction of the new Constitution. He, however, keeps using the operative word “intention” when it comes to having elections next year, which some have regarded as creating space for the UK to change course yet again.
Rushbrook noted that four distinct areas of activity have been identified, namely: A new ordinance to define the responsibilities and standards expected from political parties and individuals during elections and in public office; a revision to the detailed election procedures prescribed in the Elections Ordinance to bring it up to date with internationally recognised practice; a new Boundary Commission to define the ten new territorial constituencies and an updated Electoral Register of voters.
He added: “Independent election monitors in previous years identified weaknesses in the procedures and manner by which elections were conducted. A modernised electoral process and an accountable system of political conduct underpin the reforms defined and expected in the Constitution. Consequently, a new ordinance will be prepared to define the responsibilities and conduct of all involved in election campaigns and holders of an elected public office.”
Rushbrook reminded that the milestones relate to completing a new constitution; introducing new ordinances on the electoral process, integrity in public life and public financial management; establishing transparent accountability of public finances; putting the government finances on track to achieve a fiscal surplus; implementing a transparent and fair process for citizenship; pursuing civil and criminal cases identified by the 2008 Commission of Inquiry; implementing a new Crown Land policy; and progressing substantial reform of the public service.
He said that case law and independent election monitors have identified deficiencies in a number of key areas in the existing Elections Ordinance. The underlying intention of an updated Elections Ordinance is to specify the procedures and duties to be performed when staging an election.
“These procedures are detailed and methodical and are designed to establish a scrupulously fair set of voting and election arrangements. The Electoral Reform International Society (ERIS) reviewed the existing TCI electoral procedures in 2009 and found several weaknesses. They concluded the present Ordinance no longer meets international standards. Supplementary work by the TCI Elections Office has identified further changes necessary to accommodate new voting arrangements described in the Constitution. To be ready, the Elections Ordinance must be revised well ahead of a decision to hold new elections. This work involves a thorough examination of existing election procedures by the Elections Office, with external support organised through the FCO in London on make the changes identified by ERIS. It is planned for this support to be available during the next four months. Once all of the changes are settled, revisions to the existing ordinance will be prepared and presented to the Advisory Council,” Rushbrook added.
He said the Census scheduled for February 2012 has a direct bearing on when the new election boundaries and Electoral Register of voters can be prepared, adding that both of these activities will benefit from access to the most up to date information on population distribution and it is now known the initial census data will be available in April 2012.
“This means realistically setting up a new Boundary Commission and compiling a new Electoral Register cannot take place until after April. Fortunately, if plans are in place beforehand it is estimated the implementation of these activities should be reasonably swift with completion in a matter of weeks,” he stressed.
The new Constitution requires ten new constituencies defined with broadly similar numbers of constituents and using the most up to date population information. Therefore, a new Boundary Commission is planned for spring 2012 and will comprise of three members appointed by the Governor. Detailed preparations will be made during the winter period by the Elections Office, with assistance expected from members of the Association of Electoral Administration in London. Once defined and approved by the Governor, the new constituency boundaries will be set out in a new Boundaries Ordinance.
The UK strategist said that the 2009 incomplete revision of the Electoral Register is now out of date and with the creation of ten new constituencies, from the present fifteen, it no longer reflects the new arrangements. To replace the Register in time for elections the Elections Office has started on plans to prepare a new one during summer 2012, he said.
“An important aspect of this work will be the development of a clearer definition of the voting district for each voter, particularly where an islander has family ties on one island but lives and works predominantly on another. Measures will be put in place to discontinue the practice by some voters to register in two districts,” he added.
A small Electoral Preparations Group involving the TCIG, Attorney General's Chambers and the Governor's Office has set up the initial programme of work. As the pace of this work is set to increase the Group will be expanded to include wider integrity and community interests. It will have the principal role to steer the programme of work to completion within the next twelve months.
The general approach to consultations, including where appropriate the seeking of views from all islands, will be broadly similar to the one followed to complete the new Constitution, Rushbrook said.