MPs show concern over practicality of electoral laws

POSTED: 04/15/14 11:51 PM

St. Maarten – The Electoral Council of St. Maarten gave a presentation to the Central Committee of Parliament yesterday on its role in the upcoming elections. St. Maarten is the only constituent country in the Kingdom of the Netherlands to have such an institution. Chairman of the council, Bert Hofman, presented and gave an explanation of its tasks to the committee.

Hofman said that the council functions independently of Parliament, and is comparable to the other High Councils of State, like the Council of Advice and the National Ombudsman. It consists of three members, all of which were present, and has two deputy members in case of absence. The appointments are for 7 years. And they are nominated from across important Kingdom institutions.

The meat of the new rules deals primarily with the matter of donations and the financing of parties. There are set limits that individuals or legal entities can give to political parties, along with other criteria. For example, an individual cannot give more than Naf 5,000 in cash to any political party or candidate. Donors too can only be St. Maarten residents who can vote, or legal entities established on St. Maarten. The maximum contribution to a candidate is Naf 20,000, to the party Naf 30,000; so a party cannot receive any more than Naf 50,000 from a single donor in a year overall.

In the case of making a donation of Naf 5,000 or more, an individual must be a citizen residing on St. Maarten for at least 5 years. Though if that same person gave Naf 4,990, for example, the residency requirement need not apply.

Political parties are required to keep their financial records, showing at all times their statements and transactions. Candidates too are required to keep records of all donations as from their appointment by the party to participate in elections. These statements will then be sent by the Electoral Council to the General Audit Chamber for review and advice.

Annual reports are to be made public as well. A permanent record of all donations in chronological order must also be kept by parties, not only cash donations but all others, even services and goods, Hofman explained. Only fully registered associations registered by a notary can be a political party with legal liability, and only registered parties are allowed participate in elections. Violation of these articles can include detention up to three months or a fine up to Naf 10,000.

And this is where MPs raised their concerns about how this will actually play out in reality. Independent MP Frans Richardson immediately raised the issue that parties will need to hire good lawyers and accountants to keep up with the new laws and probably that’s where most of the donations will go anyway, to pay expensive law and accounting firms to make sure everything is booked where it should be.

He said it was unfair too because it is nearly impossible for a party to regulate what each candidate does with his or her personal spending. “How can a party be responsible for that?” he asked.  Smaller parties, too he said, would not be able to afford the proper legal and financial advice.

United People’s (UP) party MP Theo Heyliger shared similar sentiments. “I too have some concerns,” similar to MP Richardson he said. He described how the party’s manifesto can’t be handed in the same day as postulation because candidate choice is a dynamic process and can change at the last minute. “No way you can have a manifesto prepared the same day as postulation. You’re not well informed of the political process,” he told the Electoral Council point blank of the realities of discussions with potential candidates and the formation of a viable list.  “A lot of discussions go on,” he said, “then some candidates may change their mind. When is it established?  It can only be official on postulation day.”

Heyliger said that the annual presenting of books and compliance with these rules is going to be “brutal” for smaller parties and even tough for bigger parties. It will be difficult to track everything 23 candidates do, saying that candidates will have to book every “chicklet” they buy. Making the party responsible for that is too far, he said. He said that these laws were rushed through in order to get the new political status approved, and that if you questioned these things before 10 10 10 you were considered against “Country St. Maarten.”

“Candidates are not employees of the party. What if they quit the party?” he asked. “You’re asking a lot,” he said, and “trampling on democracy.” Heyliger suggested the council then make each of the 23 candidates on a list individually responsible, because it will be impossible to track all their individual expenditures from a party leadership standpoint, though the party can be held responsible.

National Alliance (NA) MP Louie Laveist said, “I’m personally not comfortable with these rules. What yardstick was used to come up with these rules?” He further wanted to know how the council arrived at the penalties.

He was concerned with donations only being allowed from voting residents registered for at least 5 years. “It is a grotesque violation of democratic rights and infringes on the rights of citizens. You are sort of a substandard citizen, you can’t participate,” Laveist said. “I have a fundamental problem with that.” He felt that this was a violation of civil rights.

He felt it was also “limiting new parties, putting these draconian rules on them, putting them at a disadvantage, while established parties with “decades long head starts” will be advantaged. “We do things legally,” he said of his party, making it more difficult to compete in elections he said. He was concerned that there is no total limit on donations, and wants spending caps on parties. “No accountability as to how you spend. If there is no limit, no cap, this exercise is an exercise in futility. Let’s be honest.”

Synchronize with rest of MPs. It is unfair to execute them now, if it was passed 4 years ago. “Focus is only financial focus.” Very little that will enhance integrity in the broader sense of the word. Who is the focus of these laws? The candidate and the party. “This is unacceptable.” Citing his own decision to leave the NA. What about libel and slander? What are the consequences for that? Focus is only on financing, but what about derogatory statements about candidates. Although these are regulated by the civil code.

Democratic Party (DP) MP Leroy de Weever said there were difficulties here. He said there were no provisions for new elections or for the revocation of results, only a prison sentence or fines. France, for example, has number of provisions, he said, which can lead to renewed elections or a candidate booted from office. France also has limitations on posters, etc, to harmonize the electoral process. He too said these measures make it difficult for smaller parties and new entrants to participate in elections. “We have to look for ways and means to make it easier for smaller groups and individuals to have a voice, based on their political philosophy and views,” he said.

But council member Linda Richardson said MPs had ample time to get themselves familiar with the legislation since it was passed in the then Island Council in 2010. “This council did not make the law,” Richardson said. She added that Parliament had enough time to change the laws if they wanted to. “It’s on your own website,” she said. “It seems to me as if some of the members did not read the laws. This should not have come as a surprise,” Richardson chided.

NA MP William Marlin appeared to defend the electoral council for making things about the electoral process more transparent, like revealing who large donors were. He too said that all members should have known about these rules and laws, since every MP was given all the legislation once taking their seat in Parliament.  Parliament, he said, missed the opportunities to debate the Electoral Council since 2010, having nearly four years to deal with it.

Council member Celia Richardson said, however, that “every candidate is responsible” for the way they handle and record donations and campaign spending.

MP Frans Richardson said, though, that ultimately the Prime Minister should have had the Electoral Council ready a lot sooner, because in the event that new elections would have had to be called, parties were not yet registered as associations.

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