A duly elected government gets its legitimacy from the people to govern by participating in an election, which demands that such elections be conducted in a free and fair manner.
Hence it is important to ensure such a process is kept free of election fraud and other corrupt activities.
It goes without saying that elections that lack legitimacy breed instability and allow for an environment where corruption breeds easily, and causes people to lose faith in their government and therefore its legitimacy in the eyes of the voting public.
Campaign for Justice (C4J) recently carried out an investigation into the conduct of the recent Port Vila Municipal Council elections, following complaints by two former councilors. The two leaders whose names are withheld claimed there had been political corruption and election irregularities - alleged to have happened during the June 30th 2022 election.
The former councilors who contested but did not make it through, blamed election irregularities and political corruption as the main causes for their failures in regaining their seats.
They have since decided to file election petitions against the Electoral Services Commission for various election offenses.
Firstly, the former councilors alleged that the Electoral Services Commission failed to conduct a fair and free election; and claimed there were incidences of irregularities and corruption. They claimed that there were “oversights” that allowed voters from other wards to vote in other wards – clearly against the rules of election. In some extreme cases, they claimed there were voters who resided in rural areas like Teouma, Rantapao, Erakor Half Road, Etas and Blacksands, who voted in the Municipal elections – contrary to the law. These voters were allowed to vote even when their permanent place of residence was not within the Port Vila Municipality.
The former Councilors expressed dissatisfaction about the way the polling officers performed their duties inside a polling station as they did not seem to observe simple election rules or procedures.
They claimed that while there were incidences where polling officers sent voters whose permanent residence were at a different ward back to their designated wards, in a particular polling station at the Southern Ward, observers did appear to assist some voters inside polling the booths. Also, an unspecified number of voters did not enter the polling booths, but stood in front of the ballot box; selected their candidates; in-front of everyone at the polling station, and then cast their votes.
The former councilors complained that one main cause of these irregularities was directly related to the fact Government, through the Electoral Commission had used the occasion to trial a new system of voting using ID Cards. They said it was clear the Commission did not test the viability of the system prior to the vote, but instead allowed the new system to play out in a real election. This confused many voters. And as a result, many voters did not turn up on polling day.
Some voters who turned up at the polling stations were not allowed to vote because their names were, either not in the electoral rolls, or that the names in the ID Cards had been miss-spelled or did not match the spelling in the electoral rolls.
They claimed the extremely poor turnout (less than 30% turn out) reflected the voters’ frustrations. They claimed the recently elected Council did not represent even half of the Port Vila City residents.
On the allegations of political corruption and bribery- the former councilors alleged that few political parties were passing out payments to the communities during the campaign period. Few candidates arranged with the Electoral Office to register voters living in rural areas to vote for them during the Municipal election.
In another incident, a particular candidate of one of the major political parties, arranged with his voters from the island to come to Port Vila especially to vote for him. The candidate allegedly paid their fares and transported them to Port Vila; housed and entertained them during the campaign period, and even arranged with an officer of the Electoral office to register them. The former councilors claimed on election day they saw the voters who came from an island, vote at one of the polling wards in Port Vila.
The former councilors requested that, if C4J found in its investigations that the allegations were proven to be true, they would file petitions to the Commission with recommendations that the June 30th Municipal Election be declared null and void and orders that fresh elections be held immediately.
Campaign for Justice investigators immediately launched an investigation into the allegations.
Our investigations started during the first week of July 2022 and ended on the second week of July. The allegations have now been substantiated with facts and evidence and that there is indeed sufficient evidence to prove election irregularities and political corruption.
There are seventeen (17) witnesses who have provided witness statements to support the former councilors petitions.
Two completed cases have been handed over to the petitioners’ lawyer, Mr. Collin Bright Leo during the third week of July 2022. The lawyer has since filed a petition to the Commission within the 21 days timeline required by the law.
Campaign for Justice believes such abhorrent election irregularities and corruption should not be tolerated especially when they happen under the watchful eyes and knowledge of an Electoral Commission. The exercise of voters’ rights to participate in an election must be fair, free of intimidation and political coercion.
When the free exercise of an individual voters’ choice is negatively influenced and placed under the pressure of political parties, then it becomes a burden and frustrates voters. A fair political game means all candidates standing must contest on a level playing field, controlled by the strict rules, regulations and laws of election.
Any player caught flouting the rules should receive due punishment under law.
If we are not careful in exercising our duties and responsibilities as election organizers, eligible voters throughout the country will no longer have the desire to exercise their rights to vote and we will continue to see and witness poor election turn outs.
- This article was first published by the Vanuatu Daily Post newspaper