A young Virgin Islander went on a rant on Facebook recently and screamed at the voters who demand cash for votes.

But cash for votes is nothing new. It is a culture that occurs where the democratic process is under the tyranny of unaccountable and nontransparent governance.

The governed are viewed simply as a means to power. Voters are common fodder. Votes are a common currency to get elected. Power is an end in itself. The voter is bought by Julius Caesar with taxpayer cash.

The result is that both the voter and government are for sale to the highest bidder. Politics and election campaigns are an auction. The auctioneer decides the price of office.

Government and the privileges of governing go to the politician who makes the highest bid. The “money men” control the politics. The quest for political power is transactional and not ideological. Pragmatism and greed trump integrity, principle and patriotism.

Usually, it is incumbents who have the deeper pockets, for obvious reasons. And cash for votes occurs in jurisdictions where respect for the rule of law is wanting. These are frequently societies that possess a shady black-market subculture.

Cash for votes is frequently accompanied by electoral fraud and even violence in countries such as Nigeria, where vote rigging and voter intimidation is the norm.

 

In the VI

Cash for votes in the Virgin Islands is nothing new. This community has always possessed a culture where the knock on the door by Julius Caesar during a general election is seen as an invitation to the voter to demand of the politician personal needs, such as fixing a leaking roof, getting young Johnny that scholarship, putting in a retaining wall, paving the road to the front door, or even putting cash in a cruise vacation for a group of elderly travelers.

However, the challenge with cash for votes is that it perverts democratic governance. It creates a culture of corruption and graft. The voter — the lowest common denominator in the electoral process — is co-opted into a symbiosis with the politician that drives corrupt, opaque and poor governance.

When the politician wins office, the “paid voter” is no longer able to view governance matters with a clear eye. He or she has been corrupted. There is a belief the voter owes Julius Caesar. Then, when Caesar overreaches in some matter, the corrupted voter turns a blind eye. He has been bought. He has become a collaborator.

And what is the motive for paying voters for their votes? Frequently it is to gain power. Power becomes an end in itself. The rewards of power are access to the public purse and deciding how the financial cake is shared.

The paid voter is part of a grassroots following that ends in cronyism, corruption and conflict of interest. Matters of honest and transparent governance take a back seat. Power in politics comes at a price. It can be bought.

 

‘White-envelope’ culture

The Caribbean is not unique in this culture of the white envelope. All over the world of politics, there are politicians with unholy alliances with voters. In the United States it is the lobby. In the United Kingdom there are ancient clubs and lodges where Julius Caesar dispenses favours for a specific price.

Transactional politics take place whenever the politician uses taxpayer cash to boost his or her general election chances.

Giving contracts to specific businesses and ensuring cash is spent on specific projects that benefit a specific voter or voter set over and above the general population are examples of white-envelope politics. This is a pervasive political culture.

The problem with “white-envelope politics” is that it drives poor governance. It is the foundation stone of “what-is-in-it-for-me” politics. White-envelope politics engineers a flawed and compromised democratic environment where voters are no longer interested in policy discussions. Voters are simply interested in their own bottom lines, and voters do not question Julius Caesar on his vision, mission and plan. Voters are only interested in what Caesar has on offer to them, in terms of dollars and cents.

“White-envelope politics,” then, is a major factor why conflict of interest, corruption and unaccountable governance exists.

 

Expat journalists

And in a VI where most journalists are on work permits, it is nearly impossible for the “Fourth Estate” to hold politicians accountable. It is left to a law enforcement apparatus that comes up against a wall of silence: the natural result of voter bribery. Policemen and policewomen are voters too.

There is also reluctance by UK governors in the overseas territories to go after corrupt politicians. This is due to the need for autonomous governance, and the UK not wanting to interfere with the internal affairs of overseas jurisdictions.

Governing institutions in the OTs, which divide into three separate arms of governance, are deemed capable, and it is believed by Whitehall that they possess teeth sharp enough to bite at corruption.

But alas, that hardly is the case, as institutions are too often compromised by the tiny nature of these communities which are in effect village communities with residents connected by blood ties.

One cannot ever recall when a politician was prosecuted for corruption in the VI, even where clear evidence exists of wrongdoing. And that is certainly not because corruption and a “culture of kickback” does not exist.

The fact is that the voter is equally as complicit as the politician in the culture of corrupt governance. And that cannot be good for democracy and good governance. A sage mind once stated, “You get the government you deserve.”

 

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