Coronavirus outbreak impacts election preparations in Jamaica

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Coronavirus outbreak impacts election preparations in Jamaica
Brown, the director of elections
Brown, the director of elections

(JAMAICA GLEANER) — The Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ) would be ready for a general election next February if the outbreak of the coronavirus is brought under control by mid-year.

That is the assessment of EOJ boss Glasspole Brown after the outbreak of the respiratory ailment, or COVID-19, and the containment measures imposed by the Government forced the electoral body to scale down election preparations.

Brown, the director of elections, acknowledged that it was the prerogative of Prime Minister Andrew Holness to determine when Jamaicans go to the polls but said that ideally, his office requires three months to be fully prepared.

“If the situation with the coronavirus is brought under control early, or certainly by the middle of this year, we would be ready for next year February,” he said during a Sunday Gleaner interview on the weekend.

“But it’s not for us to say that whatever is happening now will delay elections because we have not been told a date that it was planned for.”

Parliamentary elections are constitutionally due by the end of February 2021 but were widely expected to take place this year.

The country’s two main political parties, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which forms the Government, and the People’s National Party (PNP), stoked anticipation among their supporters in recent weeks by declaring that their election machineries were oiled and ready.

WAIT AND SEE

But with Jamaica now having 19 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including one death, up to yesterday, and two communities under quarantine, both political organisations have signalled that they are now in wait-and-see mode.

Noting that the entire country is now focused on containing the spread of the coronavirus, Dr Horace Chang, general secretary of the JLP, indicated that the party was being careful not to cause any distraction but admitted that some political activities would continue.

“We are not standing down, but we are not going to be doing any campaigning either,” said Chang, who is also the minister of national security.

He said the JLP, which is seeking a second term in office, will instead work on ensuring that its election workers are fully prepared.

“The coronavirus could peak in six or eight weeks. Whenever it peaks and settles down, the country must go on,” Chang told The Sunday Gleaner.

For the PNP, the parliamentary Opposition, general secretary Julian Robinson says that the principal objective now is on providing assistance to persons in need and the vulnerable as the country grapples with this public-health crisis. Still, Robinson noted that some election preparation activities would continue because the party “can’t take its eyes off the ball”.

“We don’t know how long the coronavirus crisis will last. Once it’s stabilised, we may be back in election mode, so we can’t take our eyes off the ball and become relaxed,” he said.

“Is the machinery fully up where it should be? Absolutely not because we have a national emergency, which we have to deal with, but there are some activities which we continue to encourage people to do because we can’t totally drop our hands during this period.”

The director of elections disclosed that among other things, the ban on large gatherings has forced the EOJ to delay the start of training for election workers. “We would have started that in the latter part of next month, but we have delayed that aspect of the work until the issues with the virus are cleared up,” said Brown.

Despite this, he said the electoral body would continue the process of procuring equipment and supplies needed for the election as well as to recruit workers.

TELL THE PUBLIC

The coronavirus outbreak has also forced the EOJ to close its verification centres, which are used to register voters. Brown acknowledged that this would have implications for persons seeking to vote in the next general elections but said that those issues would be addressed by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica, which supervises the work of the EOJ.

“The next list is due the end of May. Some decisions will be taken as to whether or not we will meet that deadline,” he said.

Amid speculation that a general election would be called this year, the observer group Citizens Action for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE) last week used an op-ed in The Gleaner to urge the Holness administration to resist the temptation.

Chairman of CAFFE, Dr Lloyd Barnett, went further during a Sunday Gleaner interview, suggesting that Holness should publicly indicate that a general election is not being considered at this time.

“Based on what is happening, we believe this is a reasonable time to say it should be taken off the agenda and allow everybody to concentrate on fighting the coronavirus,” Barnett reasoned.

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