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Tuesday, February 14, 2006
An electoral code of conduct

An electoral code of conduct is a document that political parties sign which seeks to regulate the manner in which they conduct their campaigns and to establish certain rules. Codes can vary widely, from simple provisions banning the use of violence or the making of ethnically inflammatory statements, to much more elaborate ones, such as existed in India, which explicitly ban the party in power from using state-owned vehicles or equipment or premises in the course of the campaign, and further proscribe the ruling party from opening new government projects within, say, two months of the elections, a ploy often used to confer electoral advantage. Codes can provide penalties for breaches, where for example, an activist who makes an ethnically inflammatory mark at a public meeting can be fined or even disbarred from the campaign.

In other words, a code can be `soft' or elementary, or it can be extensive and can have real teeth. Moreover, it can be a mere voluntary agreement between the parties or, as was the case in Mr Nelson Mandela's South Africa, a code with statutory effect which all political parties were required to sign, failing which they could not contest the elections.

The parties here did sign a code for the 1997 elections, which was an important beginning, though it was widely felt that the code would have benefited from a consideration of precedents in other democracies . In 2001 the parties did not sign a code though to its credit the People's Progressive Party/Civic put forward its own electoral code of conduct which it invited other parties to sign. The features of that code included refraining from slander and personal attacks as a means of seeking support, upholding the amendment to the Representation of the People Act which prohibits any person or political party from invoking racial or ethnic violence or hatred, condemning violence or the threat of violence as a means of electoral persuasion, and reprimanding party members and activists who are in breach of the code's stipulations. It is in the interest of the parties and the voters that a clear and adequate code be signed. That would at least improve the chances of a fair campaign in which parties could hold meetings in any part of the country free of molestation and issues could be clearly articulated. Several members of the media have shown the way by signing a media code and guidelines, similar to the one signed in 2000, which requires them to report the election campaign fairly and objectively. The media also set up in 2000 an Elections Media Monitoring and Refereeing Panel to monitor their performance on a daily basis and though some media personnel made no effort to comply, and indeed rejected the code, it was still a useful exercise as it set standards by which performance could be judged.

We urge the parties to sign a code and perhaps, to consider setting up a monitoring body. Even if that body did not have any statutory powers or the ability to penalise parties or individual activists, its findings that parties had failed to comply with the code would be of some public value and might even influence swing voters in the way they cast their votes. After all, there must still be quite a few people around who would want to reward a party they felt was playing by the rules. Perhaps one of the smaller parties can set the ball rolling by circulating a draft code, based on readily available precedents, to all the parties, and call a meeting to discuss it.

Stabroek News