The 2007 General Election campaigns were marked by personal attacks, with candidates calling each other “evil,” “traitor,” and “sick in the mind.” While candidates have remained civil so far this season, there is nothing keeping those running in the 2011 General Elections from slinging the proverbial mud, although the Elections Act bans unethical practices such as buying voters’ support with bribes or “treats” and intimidating voters by violence or threats.

Shortly before the 2007 election, campaign negativity spurred the BVI Christian Council to draft an elections campaign code of conduct.

After the election was over, Elections Supervisor Juliette Penn echoed the call for such a document. In Ms. Penn’s Elections Report 2007, she recommended that the Elections Act be amended to include a code of conduct for candidates as a way to keep them from “going at each other’s throats.” The code would need to be drawn up by the Attorney General’s office, and it likely would be based on a similar law in the Cayman Islands, Ms. Penn told the Beacon after her report was made public.

But so far neither the government nor the BVICC has advanced any code of conduct for the upcoming elections.

“I’d like to see it happen,” said Reverend Ronald Branche, who was the BVICC president when the group circulated the document. Rev. Branche distributed the 10-page document, which banned defamatory attacks based on race, sex, religion and physical health, and gave guidelines on ethical campaigning and financing.

2007 campaigns

Only one candidate, Alred Frett, signed. Looking back, Mr. Frett said he’s glad he did, but “it didn’t matter that I signed on.”

For the document to have any real impact, incumbents would have had to participate, he added. According to Mr. Frett, neither the National Democratic Party, which held the government at the time, nor the Virgin Islands Party, which took power after the 2007 elections, has an interest in putting a code of conduct in place.

“You don’t expect the police to police themselves,” he said.

But in 2007, both parties seemed open to the idea: They issued written responses to the BVICC and Rev. Branche commending the BVICC’s intentions, but declining to sign the code.

On behalf of the NDP, Dr. Orlando Smith pledged his party’s candidates would abide by the code’s overall principles, but said some aspects of the code “require further thought and discussion.

“In particular, it is critical to ensure that any such election code allow for the continued smooth functioning of government during elections campaigns, without violating the clear principle of separating public functions from political electioneering,” Dr. Smith wrote at the time.

Similarly, VIP President and Campaign Manager Carvin Malone wrote that his party was “committed to the conduct of free and fair elections,” but that a code of conduct on such a broad scale “would require a series of consultative meetings with select representatives of all political parties and independent candidates to fully appreciate the practicality and enforceability of a number of the procedures and codes enlisted.”

Premier Ralph O’Neal could not be reached this week for comment on his party’s stance on a campaign code of conduct.

2011 campaigns

Dr. Smith said this week that he still agrees that all the candidates should be respectful of each other, but he claimed that voters are more concerned about the issues than the campaigns.

“We are all concerned about what’s best for the country. We’re focused on presenting the issues,” Dr. Smith said, adding that if the BVICC or any other group proposed a code of conduct, he would be willing to review it. The opposition leader said he couldn’t say why campaign legislation had not been put forward in the House of Assembly as recommended by the Elections Office.

For first-time independent candidate Preston Stoutt, the real problem is that the Elections Act needs to be overhauled.

“There’s not really campaign legislation as it reads now,” Mr. Stoutt said, adding that campaign conduct and finance rules should be included in a revised Elections Act. He said he also would like to see the timeline for candidates’ campaigns revised to better reflect the reality of campaigns beginning before the government of the day is dissolved.

For its part, the BVICC still feels that campaign conduct is an important issue, said Reverend Julian Clarke, vice president of the group, but the group has not decided yet whether to try again with another code.

Ultimately, Mr. Frett said, it will take pressure from VI society as a whole, rather than a small group, for a campaign code of conduct to be implemented.

“The voters are going to have to decide whether they value the ethics of the candidates,” he said.