Following the general elections held in St. Vincent and the Grenadines on the 9th December 2015, two of the candidates for the New Democratic Party (NDP), Mr. Exeter and Mr. Baptiste, filed petitions challenging the election results in Central Leeward and North Windward constituencies, respectively.
As required by the legislation governing elections petitions, recognizances were signed by persons intending to be sureties to provide security for costs on behalf of the petitioners so that the petitions could proceed.
The Respondents in the matters, (i.e. the relevant Returning Officer, Presiding officer, the Supervisor of Elections, Sir Louis Straker, Mr. Montgomery Daniel and the Attorney General of St. Vincent and the Grenadines) filed applications in the Court to have the petitions struck out on the basis that they had not met the requirements of section 58(1)(b) and (c) of The Representation of the People Act and Rule 9 of the House of Assembly (Election Petition Rules) 2014 which set out the procedure and conditions for providing security for costs.
The application to strike out the petitions was heard before Justice Brian Cottle on the 4th March, 2016. At that hearing, the Petitioners’ lawyers made a preliminary objection to the application on the basis that the Court lacked jurisdiction to hear it at that stage of the petitions proceedings.
Despite the objections of the lawyers for our candidates, the Judge proceeded to hear the application to strike out the petitions. In a written decision delivered on the 4th day of April, 2016, Justice Cottle ultimately agreed with our candidates’ lawyers and ruled that the petitions could not be struck at that stage of the proceedings. However, unusually, went on further to state that if the application to strike out the petitions were raised again , later, during the hearing of the petitions on their merits, it was bound to succeed.
When the petitions came before Justice Cottle for hearing on the 16th June 2016, the motion to strike out the petitions was again brought by the Respondents. The motion was granted (as Justice Cottle had previously said would happen) and the petitions were struck out. Mr. Exeter and Mr. Baptiste appealed against that decision striking out their petitions.
After much delay, and despite the efforts of the lawyers for Mr. Exeter and Mr. Baptiste to have the appeal heard earlier, the appeal was finally heard on March 7, 2017, in St. Lucia. Mr. Exeter and Mr. Baptiste won the appeal which paved the way for the hearing of the petitions.
A number of delays occurred after the ruling of the Court of Appeal including the recusal of Justice Henry from the case. Nevertheless, the trial of the petitions began on February 11, 2019. The trial vindicated the outcry made by the NDP following the 2015 general elections.
In witness statements and cross-examination testimony, compelling evidence was given by the witnesses for the Petitioners concerning numerous serious irregularities and illegal practices that took place in the 2015 general elections. Evidence given by Respondents’ witnesses also supported the claims of irregularities and unlawful practices by election officials on Election Day and at the final count and purported final count.
For example, there was evidence showing that the ballot papers used for voting did not conform in fundamental ways to the requirements of the law and that, when they were used at the polls, it resulted in their mutilation and in the absence or improper placement of the official mark and initials of the presiding officer on them.
When cross-examined by the Petitioners’ lawyers, Queen’s Counsel Stanley “Stalky” John and Mr. Keith Scotland, witnesses for the Respondents also gave evidence that supported the Petitioners’ claim that the Presiding Officer’s official mark and initials that were required by law to be on each ballot counted were wrongly placed on the counterfoils and were entirely missing from ballots.
Moreover, notwithstanding this fatal flaw, those ballots were counted as though they were legal ballots.
Indeed, evidence given at the trial confirmed that in at least one polling station in Central Leeward, all the ballots did not have the official mark and initials of the presiding officer on them and were, therefore, illegal. Yet, they were counted as though they were legal ballots!
Evidence given at the trial also confirmed, among other things, that the Petitioners’ complaint that plastic ballot boxes with plastic ties to hold the lids in place were used for voting instead of the boxes with secure locks that are required by the Representation of the People Act, our election law.
A Respondent’s witness also confirmed that in North Windward all the Form 16s and also other essential notes of the Returning Officer needed to substantiate the results in North Windward were missing and apparently could not be found. Yet, the final result of the poll was determined and declared.
The NDP has consistently raised these and other serious matters concerning our elections process. The trial of the petitions has again highlighted our concerns. It has shown that the outcry we raised following the 2015 general elections was not frivolous as some in the ULP have claimed but was serious and backed up by facts and evidence. We continue to call for reform of our country’s elections practices and processes. This includes the establishment of an independent electoral commission to oversee our elections. There must also be strict adherence to the election laws.
These petitions have clearly shown the urgent need for changes before the next election. We cannot go into another election knowing that the process is seriously flawed and that the results cannot be trusted to be the true reflection of the will of the people.
If we are to live up to the claim of being a modern democracy, we cannot fail to act. The people demand it and the NDP, as always, supports the wishes of the people of SVG.
The NDP applauds the hard work and tremendous skill of the entire legal team who represented the Petitioners.
We also salute the courage of the witnesses. And to our members, supporters and well wishers we sincerely express our gratitude to you for your support.