Electoral Council chairman Bert Hofman: “Important for parties to realize that we will publish our findings”

POSTED: 04/9/14 12:50 AM

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – “I expect absolutely more transparency. I also have the impression that parties will carry out the legislation, as long as they have the feeling that the rules apply to everybody. The council is a serious club that will not allow the execution of its tasks to be obscured,” says attorney Bert Hofman, the chairman of St. Maarten’s Electoral Council.

The Council is not only new, but it is also unique: no other country in the Kingdom has such a body, tasked with the registration of political parties and with monitoring the financial administration of parties and candidates. Tomorrow, the Electoral Council hosts an information session about its work at the University of St. Martin from 7 to 9 p.m.

The Electoral Council consists of Hofman (chairman), Cela Richardson-Nicolaas (vice chair) and Linda Richardson. The Council has its own office at Backstreet 145, unit B, staffed by a part-time administrative employee. The council’s website is under construction; it will play a crucial role in making the activities of political parties more transparent.

The first task of the Electoral Council is the registration of political parties. So far, only the UP has completed its registration. Hofman mentions this because the UP has made it public. He declines to give specific information about other parties. “Some of them have visited us; two parties have submitted their application for registration, and three have asked for information or made an appointment.”

Only registered parties are allowed to take part in the elections. The deadline for submitting a request for registration is six weeks before postulation day. With elections on September 5, and postulation on July 16, this important deadline is Wednesday June 4.

Political parties have to submit to the council their statutes and an excerpt of their registration at the Chamber of Commerce. They also have to identify their board members and provide valid IDs of these members. Lastly, parties have to indicate how they want their party’s name to appear on the ballot.

“There are limits to that,” Hofman says. “The length of a party’s name on the ballot is limited to fifteen characters. In Aruba it is different – there the maximum is 36 characters. New parties have the tendency to be more creative with this. But as far as the registration on the ballot is concerned the rule is: first come, first served.”

The party names on the ballots may not contain obscene language or cause confusion, and latecomers will have to adjust to what early birds have already submitted. “If you come on the same day half an hour after another party, you are behind,” Hofman says.

The registration of political parties requires a profound study of the statutes. The requirements parties have to meet are regulated in the national ordinance on the registration and finances of political parties. Article 15 contains sixteen requirements; among them are the duties members have towards the party and how these duties can be imposed, and the obligation to publish a political program in a timely manner before the elections.

While all this seems like a rather dull administrative process, the second task of the Electoral Council – monitoring the finances of parties and candidates – will pique more interest. “Parties will have to submit a report about the gifts they have received; individual candidates are obliged to do the same,” Hofman says. “They all have to report about their finances from the moment they become a candidate up to the moment of the elections.”

The ordinance that regulates political parties contains an article that obliges parties to submit a financial report each year before April 1. Asked about this deadline, Democratic Party-leader Sarah Wescot-Williams recently said that this requirement only applies after a party has registered at the Chamber of Commerce, thereby creating the impression that the DP would register after this date. But that move will not exonerate parties from giving account of their finances, Hofman says.

“We look at the activities parties organize, and how they finance those activities. We will of course not be able to look at everything, but we will make sure that we will be looking at all parties on different aspects. If something is unclear, we will investigate further.”

Political parties and their candidates are by law obliged to cooperate with the Electoral Council. “We have the right to ask for information and parties and candidates are obliged to give it. If they do not do this, we have administrative enforcement instruments – like a fine – at our disposal.”

Criminal prosecution is also possible, Hofman points out. “Candidates that have been elected have to declare that they have not violated the ordinance.” If parties or candidates violate certain articles from the national ordinance on the registration and finances of political parties, they face imprisonment for at most 3 months and a maximum fine of 10,000 guilders. They could also be stripped of their rights to vote and to be elected.

What will be the biggest change the Electoral Council will bring about? Hofman: “Transparency, because we will publish what we find in the administration of parties and candidates.”

The Electoral Council does not have powers like the French Council of State. Both Louis Constant Fleming and Alain Richardson had to leave their position as Present of the Collectivité  d’Outre Mer de Saint Martin after this council found irregularities in the way they had financed their election campaigns.

“Such powers we do not have,” Hofman concedes. “But we will look at what is going on and if a party or a candidate received too much in gifts, they will have to give it back. If they refuse, we are authorized to impose a penalty. This process does not take place in backrooms – it is public and we will publish our findings. It is important for parties to realize this.”

The Electoral Council stays out of politics, Hofman emphasizes. “We do not want to create the impression that we are only looking at one particular party – we look at all of them. People are quick to dream up connections between members of the council and political affinity, but that does not play a role in what we are doing. People are already looking critically at the council. We attend party congresses and that leads to a lot of suspicion. That is why it is important for us, not only to show that we are there, but also that we are there for everyone.”

The national ordinance requires that political parties keep a permanent and chronological administration of the gifts they receive. The requirement also applies to candidates, from the moment they have been selected until the day of the election.

Political parties and candidates are only allowed to accept gifts of more than 5,000 guilders from eligible voters, from non-Dutch donors with at least five years of legal residence or from legal entities and social organizations established in St. Maarten. “Government-owned companies are not allowed to make contributions,” Hofman points out.

Gifts to a political party and to candidates of the same party by one donor, company or organization are limited to 50,000 guilders (close to $28,000) per calendar year (30,000 guilders maximum for the party, and 20,000 guilders maximum for candidates). “Gifts that exceed this amount are not accepted or returned to the donor,” the ordinance states in article 41. The law prohibits making donations in cash that are larger than 5,000 guilders.

 

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