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Campaign finance reforms unlikely before next poll

BY CONRAD HAMILTON Sunday Observer senior reporter hamiltonc@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, October 16, 2011    

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DESPITE mounting calls for the introduction of campaign financing legislation in time for the next general election, it is becoming increasingly clear that the much-touted reforms may not take effect before Jamaicans go the polls.

While a general election is due in September 2012, observers of the political climate have been asserting that in light of recent developments in the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), the soon-to-be-confirmed party leader and prime minister, Andrew Holness, will not wait until September next year to seek his own mandate.

However, an early election could disappoint the church, the private sector and other civic groups which, in recent months, have intensified their appeal for the country's two main political parties to accept and facilitate the passage of proposals developed by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), to regulate donations to political parties and to prevent the use of tainted funds in election campaigns.

The draft proposal also has provisions governing limits on campaign expenditure, disclosure of expenditure, monitoring and enforcement of limits on campaign expenditure and campaign advertising.

But speaking with the Sunday Observer, independent member of the ECJ, Dr Herbert Thompson, suggested that there might not be sufficient time to complete the process before the next election.

"Because of the steps involved and the fact that the thing (the passage of legislation) can't be rushed, an early election would not leave room for the legislation to be passed. I don't think it will be likely if the election is held within the next few months, as we are hearing about. When we send our report to Parliament, then there will have to be a debate on it," said Dr Thompson. However, he argued that he does not foresee any heated parliamentary debate, as both major political parties played a role in the development of the campaign reform proposals.

He added that the ECJ will be meeting next week and at that time members of the two main political parties are expected to provide their final feedback on the recommendations which they have been reviewing for several weeks.

"Out of the points that the political parties needed to agree on through their representatives at the table of the ECJ, most of the points were agreed, but there were one or two little things that they were to examine before coming back to the table. We have a meeting on Wednesday coming, and after that meeting we will be ready to send our final report to parliament", he said.

Dr Thompson also sought to dismiss claims that the JLP and the People's National Party (PNP) have been dragging their feet on the review process. "It is fair to say we haven't seen any sign of any intention to stall," he said.

In light of the developments, the ECJ member commended the local election observer group Citizen's Action For Free and Fair Elections, CAFFE, on its move to monitor election campaign financing in the absence of the required legislation.

At a media briefing last week CAFFE announced that it would be monitoring the financing of, and spending by candidates in the campaign for the upcoming general election.

The organisation said it had begun to train volunteers in the monitoring of political party financing, which it hopes will prevent tainted money from influencing the outcome of the elections. CAFFE disclosed that it had trained more than 100 volunteers in campaign finance monitoring. The body has also produced a handbook which is being distributed to volunteers.

Meanwhile, the Jamaica Council of Churches is calling on the political parties to adopt the ECJ's recommendations for the current election campaign, even though the related legislation is not in place.

"The best we could go for is to see how the spirit of the proposed legislation could be incorporated and borne in mind by the political parties, so that it becomes a part of the policy of how you will conduct yourself and those who will support your bid for power at the polls," said President of the council, Reverend Gary Harriott.

On Friday, human rights lobby group, Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) said campaign finance legislation as proposed by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica, should be put in place before another general election, pointing to the fact that both the PNP and the JLP had committed to responding to these recommendations by the end of September 2011.

"Recent events in the JLP and the looming prospect of an early general election make it even more critical that the parties commit to tabling in Parliament, and passing quickly, the strong campaign finance law needed to control the influence of money on our politics. This could be done within two weeks if there was sufficient political will," the lobby group said in a release.

JFJ also joined calls for the country to be given adequate notice of an election.

"We also support the calls that point to the need for sufficient time to be given for preparations for elections to be put in place by the EOJ and various interest groups such as CAFFE," the lobby group said.

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