How do vote-buying promises and bribes undermine the democratic process?

Democracy proponents believe that if an election is “free,” it means that all those entitled to vote are totally free to make their choice of candidate without imposition or inducement. Unfortunately, this cannot be totally true of elections in Seychelles, where the inducement of voters by political parties and politicians seems to have become the order of the day.

Vote buying is the process of politicians attempting to induce individuals to vote for them by offering gifts of money, favors or some other benefit. This is something that seems to manifest election after election, although wrong-doers are seldom taken to task, with certain politicians who have been found by a court of law to have induced voters in past elections walking away unscathed. This is all the more relevant now that allegations are being flung left and right of vote buying taking place in the districts. It is also relevant since ONE SEYCHELLES’ Bel Air candidate, namely Mr. Steve Denis, was offered a bribe in order to bow out of the race, and another Legislative Assembly candidate was informed that his job security could not be guaranteed if he continued to support ONE SEYCHELLES.

Worldwide, the political parties that fail to build a brand that convinces voters that their electoral promises can be trusted are more likely to engage in this corrupt practice. As time progresses, vote buying may become entrenched, with citizens – especially the poorest and most marginalized – beginning to see the disbursement of cash before elections as the one and only thing they get from an ineffectual government. They can come to depend on it. As a result, a vicious circle emerges. Those who suffer most from corruption become paradoxically those least likely to oppose it and demand reform.

Ideally, elections create a “social contract” between candidates and constituents who voted with the presumption that the candidates will govern along the lines of their stated policy platforms. Vote buying enables poor governance and undercuts citizens’ ability to hold their elected officials accountable. If a candidate believes all they need to do to be elected is pay off voters and government officials, they will have no incentive to be responsive to issues their constituents care about — issues like water and sanitation, education and unemployment.

Along with damaging the candidate’s credibility, vote buying deters aspiring political leaders from running for office because it suggests that money, rather than ideas or experience, is how to win an election. In other words, it means that the candidate with the deepest pockets would win the election, rather than the candidate who would best serve the Republic. This discourages qualified candidates from running for office, while entrenching corrupt officials in their positions.

There needs to be more accountability for illegal practices such as these. It needs to be easier to report such practices, especially when they are widely known to occur around National election periods. The law in this regard needs to be strengthened, with more severe penalties in existence to deter the corrupt practice from continuing unchecked. When reports of vote buying finally make it before a court of law, politicians need to get more than just a slap on the wrist.

One of the few cases in this domain that actually made it before a court include the infamous case of  Ramkalawan v Electoral Commission & Ors (CP1/2016) [2016] SCCA 17 (12 August 2016), which arose following the last National elections. Therein, the Court of Appeal considered an allegation of illegal practice against Mr. Ramkalawan. The allegation was founded on an infamous leaflet, which evidently emanated from him in English and was later translated into Tamil and circulated to the Tamil community. Mr. Ramkalawan admitted to having drafted the letter in English for the purpose of its translation and circulation to the Tamil community.

It contained statements such as: “Those who are eligible from Tamil and Indian origins will be suitably placed positions in my cabinet, Principal Secretaries…. The above are not just words or just decorations, I request all of you to support me and other parties to join me and I humbly request you to do so.  You should also be instrumental for this country to have a good room flourishing like a flower.  Support Ramkalawan and make him victorious.” These were amongst other benefits to the Tamil community if they were to support him and the parties representing him in the election.

Mr. Ramkalawan tried to justify that the leaflet was no more than an election manifesto and an election promise like so many electoral promises. He stated that this was simply politicking (parag 12 of the Judgment). However, the Court of Appeal at parag 56 of their Judgment held, “At some places the leaflet loses the character of an electoral manifesto and becomes a document of bargain.”

At parag 81 of the Judgment, the Court held: “The text as worded unhappily conveys the clear message of bargaining for votes, an undertaking to the community that they will obtain Deepavali as a public holiday and places in the Cabinet and senior posts in the civil service against their votes. Learned counsel has argued that there is nowhere the offer of vote mentioned. To us, that is clearly driven home by the design at the end of the document which shows a tick against his name in a simulated ballot paper.”

Despite the above, Mr. Ramkalawan was not subjected to legal consequences under the Elections Act because the Court ultimately decided that his actions were borne from “inadvertence or misapprehension of the law.”

Remember: if you sell your vote, instead of voting for someone whose policies and plans for the future of Seychellois and the Republic you truly believe in, then you cannot be surprised at the end of this month when the Country continues to be governed in the interests of the rich, privileged and powerful instead of ordinary citizens.