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John Roughan (In Honiara): 2,000 vs. 50!

2,000 vs. 50!

John Roughan
6 March 2006

These numbers refer to the number of Solomon Islanders--2,000--who could have been engaged as local poll watchers and the actual number of overseas people--50--who are expected to fly in to observe our election day, 5 April, and then stay on a few days more while votes are counted. The UNDP's SI$3.3 million budget is earmarked to sustain--fly in a few dozen overseas people, pay their accommodation costs while in country, lavish on them a hefty daily allowance and transport them around the country. The whole UNDP budget, however, covers only 50 strangers flying in to observe the national elections .

This same amount of money (SI$3.3 million), however, could have been spent on training, transporting and modestly sustaining a daily allowance for 2,000 Solomon Islanders to monitor the full 770 polling booths scattered across the nation. As it is, the 50 UNDP personnel, in teams of two, who know next to nothing about the Solomons and its people, have little knowledge of Pijin much less any local language and hardly any understanding of local customs and traditions, can be realistically expected to monitor 100 polling booths on that day.

Granted that the exact day of the election was only made public recently, everyone and his bush brother knew that the country was scheduled for national elections at least a year ago. Who dragged his feet? When did the Kemakeza Government decide to ask the Commonwealth, UN, etc. for outside help to watch over, study and monitor our national elections? Why weren't Solomon citizens themselves seen as valid, worthwhile and insightful partners to watch over, study and monitor, along side any overseas personnel, the national poll?

Local people--men and women, educated and those less so, youth and olos--given a period of intensive training would make marvelous and powerful poll watchers. With 770 polling booths scattered all over our island-nation, what better way for the people who's lives are so deeply affected by a 'free and fair' election to participate in the electoral process in this way. As it is, the 50 foreigners parachuting into the country will hardly make any difference.

On Friday last, a group of 20 young people gathered in the SIDT's conference room to begin the difficult task of preparing themselves for the 5 April poll. With a zero budget they willingly volunteered to do the hard work of keeping a watchful presence during the campaign period currently taking place. They plan to show up at some polling booths to keep a sharp eye out during the very day of the poll. But especially during the 10 days to 2 weeks following the 5 April election day they want to know who and what is going on with the newly elected members. Who of the newly elected is being influenced and by whom?

These young people call the post election day period the 'Second Election'. Unfortunately this Second Election takes place, not in the open, not with clear set of rules and regulations like the official polling day exercise, but much more in secret, behind locked doors. Winning candidates heap up in Honiara, enjoy themselves in big hotels with ample food, drink, transport and other 'goodies' taken care of by 'very kind' people who want to make sure that the 'horse trading'--the formation of the new government--goes the 'right' way.

At the end of the Friday session last week, one youth asked "Why doesn't the government train the people themselves to act as local poll watchers?" I pressed him for his own answer which wasn't long in coming: "I think they're afraid of us!" he said. I could hardly disagree with his judgment. It's so much safer to seek overseas people who know little about us than to tap into local experts who know well and have a close, clear and concerned view of candidates.

Make no mistake about it. Local people monitoring the campaign period, keeping a sharp eye out during the actual voting day and then coming into Honiara to monitor winning candidates' conduct is a solid idea. If overseas personnel could be added to that mix, then the results would be no less than great. However, simply depending upon a few dozen outsiders, with little knowledge and understanding of the country, to do the job on their own, is mission impossible.

But it's no use crying over spilt milk. Let's make the best of what we got. With election day a month away. let's engage those willing souls who are anxious to help out and want to make a difference to the nation's future. A modest grant to cover food, transport and some materials could make this vital work possible.


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