Opinion

Saneem Observes Snap Elections In Vanuatu

Here is an account from Mohammed Saneem of what transpired in Vanuatu during the snap elections on January 22, 2016. I was recently afforded a rare opportunity to represent the
19 Feb 2016 12:59
Saneem Observes Snap Elections In Vanuatu
Election day in Vanuatu. Photo: Imagicity

Here is an account from Mohammed Saneem of what transpired in Vanuatu during the snap elections on January 22, 2016.

I was recently afforded a rare opportunity to represent the Fijian Elections Offi ce [FEO] on a Melanesian Spearhead Group [MSG] Observer Mission to observe the snap elections in Vanuatu.

The snap election followed the recent dissolution of Parliament by Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale after a corruption scandal destabilised the government. Following the imprisonment of the convicted MPs, both sides of the House failed to form a clear majority, resulting in the Snap Election.

The MSG Observer Mission was led by former parliamentarian and Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Sir Francis Billy Hilly, and included observers from Papua New Guinea and Kanak and the Socialist National Liberation Front of New Caledonia. Former President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, Navneel Sharma and I joined the MSG Observer Mission from Fiji.

The election was also observed by Observer teams from the Pacifi c Islands Forum (PIF) and the Commonwealth. The one-day election took place on January 22, 2016, which had been declared a public holiday and was contested by 183 candidates vying for 52 seats, elected for a term of four years under 17 multi-member constituencies. A total of 28 Political Parties – a record for Vanuatu – contested the Election. The MSG Observer team was split into groups of two observers to maximise the scope of our coverage.

I joined Rence Sore, the political secretary of the Prime Minister of Solomon Islands, and we covered half of the Vila Rural Constituency. As part of FEO’s general capacity building initiative, this article captures my observations, detailing the polling and counting process in Vanuatu.

The voting process The polling stations were set up mainly in areas with at least two points of entry and exit. In most cases, open halls, marquees (specially constructed for polling) and school classrooms were used. These buildings, in the places I visited, were mostly surrounded by open grassy patches cooled by the refreshing Vila breeze and trees all around that provided ample shade. In busier stations, multiple classrooms were set-up, as was the case with the 2014 General Election in Fiji.

Interestingly, I observed that voters tended to line up in the grassy patched areas rather than the corridors, despite the rather hot morning sun – most likely, I believed, a symptom of their nervousness. Similar to Fiji, the turnout surged early in the morning. At Panigasua Polling Station, 103 voters cast their votes between 7:30am and 8am. Thereafter, voters trickled in slowly in groups of up to fi ve at a time since Election Day had been declared a public holiday.

Most would sit around the polling station, under trees catching up with others, before slowly making their way to the line. In Fiji, we limited the total number of voters in a station up to 500 to allow voter comfort and give sufficient time for counting staff in the evening after the ten (10) hours of voting.

However, in some polling places in Vanuatu, up to 3500 voters were allocated to one polling station. The Electoral Commissioner, John Taleo remarked that turnouts at Vanuatu elections have been historically low and, therefore, staff should be able to manage the load during the voting and counting stages.

He highlighted that the roll did not always accurately refl ect the number of persons around polling stations. While the Electoral Commission was taking steps to correct this issue, works were not completed in time for this snap election.

In Vanuatu, persons aged 18 and above can apply for a voter card which is categorised depending on their voting constituency. A blue Card is issued for voters in rural constituencies while a red card is issued for voters in urban constituencies.

In order to vote, a voter must produce their voter card. The voter card has essential personal information that is used to identify a voter. It also contains residential information used to determine the constituency a voter has to vote in. The voter cards are the size of a ‘B-5’ card folded in half. The bottom right hand fl ap has six (6) spaces to record the details of the election in consideration.

I noticed that the polling officials were given stamps for placing these markings. Inside the polling station, the set up is very similar to the Fijian set up. For this election, there are two (2) clerks who have identical copies of the Roll; they are called ‘Clerk Number 1.’

There is another clerk, ‘Clerk Number 2’, with a third identical copy of the roll who is responsible for issuing ballot papers to voters after their details have been checked by Clerk Number 1. Clerk Number 2 also marks voters off the roll before issuing the ballots. Together with the ballots, each voter is given an envelope and directed to the voting booth. Vanuatu uses wooden-framed voting booths which are erected by the Electoral Commission staff usually a day prior to election day.

The number of booths range from four to 10 depending on the size of the polling stations. In one of the polling stations in which we were present, it took about 15 minutes for the team to set up all the eight booths. In Fiji, we used cardboard voting screens.

In Vanuatu, ballot papers are not marked. In fact, there are no pens allowed at all inside the voting screen. The Electoral Commission prints the name, photo (non-colour) and political party symbol on small sticky pad sized coloured paper (one colour per candidate) and all the ballots for a constituency are bound by glue on one end to form a bound bunch.

There is no particular order in which the papers are bound, but it was noticed that all bound sets were in the same order. In Fiji, the order of the names appearing on the Voter Instruction Booklet is determined following a randomisation process – the draw from the barrel which we call the National Candidates List draw.

Voters take the ballot paper and envelope into the voting screen, identify the candidate of their (the voter’s) preference, tear out that particular candidate’s ballot paper from the bunch, place it in the envelope, seal the envelope and walk to the ballot box in the middle of the room to drop the envelope into the ballot box.

The voter then goes to ‘Clerk Number 3’ to receive their Voter card and have indelible ink applied to their left thumb. Once this is done, the voter exits the polling station. The counting process The counting process is quite simple. At the end of the polling, the presiding officer (PO), in the presence of party agents and observers, opens the ballot box and counts the envelopes.

The PO then reconciles the number voted against the number of envelopes. Once reconciliation is complete, the PO then opens each envelope and reveals the vote. Since Vanuatu follows First-Past-thePost System, the PO simply sorts the ballots into piles and counts each pile to ascertain the number of votes each candidate received.

While counting in some places went on till midnight, other places such as Black Sands Polling Station where I was present for the count, with lower turnout, the count fi nished just before 7:30pm. The Electoral Commission advised that they would rely on the PO’s records except when the PO’s reconciliation was inaccurate or where there was a challenge to the result.

Only in those instances, will the Electoral Commission conduct an offi cial count once the materials are returned, under heavy security, to Vila.

The totals are calculated for each candidate per constituency. Depending on how many seats are allocated to the constituency, the highest vote getters are awarded those seats in Parliament. In Vanuatu, the Electoral Commission does not announce the results from the polling station counts at the end of polling day. Party Agents present at the Count record their own results that media and Parties use.

The Electoral Commission only announces the fi nal results. My personal observations were that the people of Vanuatu embraced the election positively. Despite the short time and sometimes challenging circumstances, the Electoral Commission performed its tasks well and ensured that the credibility of the process was maintained. Voters were also quite familiar with this very simple voting system which made a lot of the work for Polling Officials easy.

The Polling Officials in the election were competent and handled the polling and counting processes diligently and effectively. In some polling places I visited, there were up to 30 candidate agents paying careful attention to the process.

All credit goes to my good friend and chairperson of the Vanuatu Electoral Commission, John Taleo, who I congratulate on a job well done. I take this opportunity to thank the Fijian Government for allowing my participation in this regional exercise.

I would also like to acknowledge and thank the staff at the MSG Secretariat in Vanuatu for their support during the exercise. As an elections person, it is wonderful to see the MSG extending its role into election monitoring. It is a whole new horizon to support solid democratic practices and good governance among its membership.

 

The views expressed in this article are purely of the author and not of the Melanesian Spearhead Group [MSG]. A report was prepared after the election by the MSG Observer Mission that will be handed to the MSG.

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