Can we avoid collateral damage to electoral reform and escape from the 1972 ogre? (Part I)

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The First Past The Post system gave the Organisation du peuple de Rodrigues a 10-2 victory in last Sunday regional elections. But following application of proportional representation, the final result was 10-7, bringing down the winning party’s majority to three seats.

The First Past The Post system gave the Organisation du peuple de Rodrigues a 10-2 victory in last Sunday regional elections. But following application of proportional representation, the final result was 10-7, bringing down the winning party’s majority to three seats.

Following regional elections in Rodrigues, the introduction of a dose of proportional representation (PR) is again the subject of debate in various quarters. In his contribution in two parts, Dr Rama Sithanen, expert in electoral systems, formulates six questions. In the first part, he answers three questions on the application of PR together with First Past The Post (FPTP) in a mixed electoral system. He considers the three other questions in a second article to be published tomorrow.

1. Beware of the consequences of the 2017 elections in Rodrigues

I shall address six questions that arise following the election results in Rodrigues and attempt to shed some light on them.

i) Is it fair for the margin of OPR victory to decrease from 8 seats after FPTP result to 3 seats with the allocation of 5 PR seats?

ii) Are there other mixed systems that could do a better job of balancing representation with FPTP victory margin than that of Rodrigues?

iii) Could we still produce a reform package in Mauritius that satisfies most people who want a fair system but are fearful of the spectre of PR?

iv) Has that result sounded the death knell of electoral reform in Mauritius ?

v) Is an update of the 1972 community-based census the most likely response for Mauritius to meet its commitment to the UNHRC to “cure the violation of human rights” for which we have been condemned?

vi) What will the stand of the State be in the ongoing case of Rezistans & Alternativ before the Supreme Court?

2. The outcome is within the law. But there are better ways of balancing fairness with stability

It is clear that the electoral law voted in Parliament in 2016 has been adhered to. Even if some actors are disappointed, the outcome is a fair reflection of how our compatriots in Rodrigues voted. As aptly stated by Ivan Collendavelloo, Chairperson of the Select Committee in the 2002 report, “the final results only serve to proclaim the reality of the vote and not the contingency of an unfair system.”

The “contingency of an unfair system” is the FPTP that gave OPR 83% of constituency seats on 56% of vote and 17% of seats to MR on 42% of vote.

The “reality of the vote” is the mixed FPTP/PR that delivered 59 % of total seats to OPR on 56 % of vote and 41 % of seats to MR on 42 % of vote. It required that all 5 PR seats went to MR.

It is both legal and fair. Rodrigues embraced a mixed FPTP/PR electoral system advisedly to avoid the anomalies of FPTP as experienced in Mauritius.

The harshest criticisms came from the very Prime Minister who introduced the formula in 2001 and amended it in 2016. Many expressed their disapproval at the outcome and insisted for a change to the FPTP model. Or more cynically to call for a PR mode that will not alter the outcome of the FPTP contest, knowing fully well that it is impossible for a dose of PR to keep the margin of victory of FPTP undiluted.

As articulated by Collendavelloo in the 2002 report, “at the end of the day, we need to know what we want. It does appear incongruous to clamour against the unfairness of the FPTP system and we agree that we require a dose of PR to mitigate the rigours of the system. We ought not therefore to be surprised when a dose of PR precisely achieves this result.”

However a very pertinent and highly legitimate question is whether the mixed formula adopted in Rodrigues is the best to balance the requirements of stability with the exigencies of representation.

“There is hardly any political party that wants a pure proportional system.”

3. There are alternatives to strike better balance between representation and FPTP victory margin

I have highlighted on several occasions over the years the high risks of converting a mixed FPTP/ PR formula which purports to correct the anomalies of FPTP system into a PURE PROPORTIONAL model that is simply a mirror image between vote and seats.

This is exactly what happened in Rodrigues.

The best is often the enemy of the good. To be frank, we have probably obtained more than we bargained for. While we are concerned about the huge disproportionality between vote and seat in FPTP voting formula, there is hardly any political party that wants a pure proportional system. The objective has always been to find a compromise to ensure a good representation for unsuccessful parties rather than transforming the system into a pure PR that could wreak havoc on the stability of Government. Neither the MMM which has spearheaded the reform and the LP nor the PMSD and certainly the MSM have ever argued for a full PR system. All want to preserve the sanctity and paramountcy of FPTP and append a dose of PR to cure the defects of high vote/seat distortion.

Yet, knowingly for those who are familiar with electoral dispensations and unexpectedly for those who have a vague comprehension of the formula, we have ended up with a pure PR system in Rodrigues. One can well understand that it sends chill down the spine of many, especially with respect to reform in Mauritius. This is the crux of the matter. It is plain that many well intentioned persons have not fully grasped the significance of this subtle but extremely important difference. While on paper, the system in Rodrigues is a mixed FPTP/PR, in reality it has been transformed into a full PR mode because of the way the PR seats are distributed. It fully compensates the party that has been penalised in FPTP seats so that we end up with a very close, if not exact, relationship between vote and seat share. Worse, had the system remained unchanged, ALL 6 PR seats would have accrued to MR and the margin of victory would have narrowed from 10-2 to 10-8. !

To buttress the point, we could have eliminated the FPTP election altogether and simply held a PR contest with 17 seats. On 56% of vote, OPR would have been entitled to 10 seats and MR 7 seats on 42 % of vote. Exactly the same outcome as the mixed formula.

I am deeply in favour of a voting formula that affords fair representation to parties that poll a significant share of vote. However I am not supportive of transforming it into a pure PR, either directly or through the backdoor of a mixed FPTP/ PR system. While I do not like Model A of Sachs for its “panadol to cure cancer” features, I am also against Model C of Sachs that very often converts our FPTP system into full PR.

This is NOT what most of us want. More important, this is also NOT what we have been told would happen in Mauritius with reform. There is a major difference between a mixed system that corrects the anomalies of the FPTP and one that mutates into a full proportional model like Germany and New Zealand or Netherlands and Israel. The maximization of proportionality is not always a desirable end as it will impact very adversely on the margin of victory and the stability of the system. Better alternatives do exist to balance the two core values of stability and representation and not to focus only on one of them.

“If we want to preserve stability, we should avoid pure PR and choose BROAD PROPORTIONALITY.”

4. Still possible to produce an acceptable reform package in Mauritius if matters are well clarified.

Representative government must not only represent, it must also govern. To have a chance of success, we should focus on remedying the ailments of the FPTP and not transmuting it into a pure PR through the adoption of a mixed FPTP/PR formula based on Model C of Sachs. We should equally reject Model A of Sachs as it leaves huge distortion between seats and votes and increases the margin of victory. For instance if the parallel method of Sachs A were applied to Rodrigues, it would have allotted 3 PR seats to OPR and 2 to MR. The margin of victory would rise from 10-2 in FPTP to 13-4 at the end. The party already favoured in FPTP also takes the lion share of PR seats. Hence its rejection by Sachs, Carcassonne and other experts.

It should be very clear that the three principal tasks in a reform should be as follows:

i) to cure the very high disproportionality between seats and votes which leads to significant underrepresentation of some parties;

ii) to remedy the amplification of “winner takes all” where one alliance obtains 100 % of seats with around 51% of votes, thus leaving no elected representation at all to other parties with a reasonable vote share ;

iii) to ensure, in so doing, that the stability of the system is not undermined. It is assessed by the need for a reasonable victory margin to govern the country.

If we want to preserve stability, we should avoid pure PR and choose BROAD PROPORTIONALITY. There will still be some divergence between seats and votes but it will tend to be small and tolerable compared to the unfairness of the current voting mode and the strict proportionality of Model C of Sachs.

There are few key principles that should underpin this strategic thinking

i) as we are used to the stability feature of FPTP since 1958, it should remain the overriding component of the new system;

ii) however it should not be the sole criteria. Fairness should be incorporated to provide for representation and inclusion even if it should not be the deciding factor;

iii) There should not be too wide a disproportionality between vote and seats. Many experts believe a margin of around 10 to 13 percentage points is an acceptable compromise between stability and representation. Below 10 percentage points, stability could be affected while above 13 percentage points, the system becomes short on representation. An alliance with 51% of vote would have around 64% of seats while another one with 45% of vote would capture about 32% of seats. The distortion in Rodrigues with FPTP was a positive 27 percentage points for OPR and a negative 25 percentage points for MR. Far too high;

iiii) It could also be subject to a stricter test. Many are strongly against an electoral system that gives a party with less than 50% of vote more than 75% of seats, allowing it to change fundamental constitutional provisions without heeding the views of the other 50% who did not vote for it. In the debate to Independence, some constitutionalists proposed that a party capturing more than 25% of vote should be consulted on major constitutional changes that affect the democratic fabric of our country. And if no consensus is reached, it should have a blocking minority. The principle is clear. We need checks and balances to avoid abuse of power.

In many documents and articles, I have proposed three alternative models that attempt to strike such balance. One specific formula sits between Model A and Model C of Sachs. It is anchored on the principle of allocating PR seats on the basis of votes that have not been used to elect MP’s. This is the “wasted vote” model. If it were applied in Rodrigues, MR would have collected 4 PR seats with OPR taking one such seat. The final result would be 11 seats for OPR and 6 seats for MR, representing 65% of seats on 56% of vote for OPR and 35 % of seats on 42% of vote for MR.

On the one hand, it is much fairer than the outcome of the pure FPTP where OPR had 83% of seats and MR only 17% of seats. On the other hand, it still gives a good margin to the winning party to govern effectively and decisively. It stands at 5 seats compared to 3 seats in the current system and 8 seats in the FPTP mode. Because it is fair without being proportional.

Of course there is no perfect system. It could be complemented with an anti-defection clause and one to ensure that the risks of distortions are minimised. It has the potential to satisfy those who want inclusion without alienating those wedded to FPTP.

Read also : (Part II)

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