Roukaya Kasenally : “The amendment to the ICTA is very much in line with the autocratic rulebook”

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You have just joined the International Advisory Board of the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP). EIP has as founding director Professor Pippa Norris based at the JFK School of Government at Harvard University…

Indeed, EIP reached out to me some weeks back to be part of their International Advisory Board together with some 26 international experts. I essentially represent Africa and this nomination is in line with my current position as Chair of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA). One of the main objectives of EIP is to understand and shed light on elections, democracy, and autocracy. We all know that these three features are significantly shaping our societies. In fact, the question of electoral integrity has been at the heart of discussions in a number of countries – it is not simply about organising elections but increasing, ensuring that they are held in a competitive, transparent and fair manner. We know for a fact that a number of dictators across the world are fond of organising elections as a means of legitimizing their power.

Speaking of elections, the electoral petitions of the 2019 Legislative are still under process at our Supreme Court. Why is it taking so long, unlike countries like Kenya and Malawi?

As per the Representation of the People AcFt (1958), Section 45, sub section (c), petitioners contesting the results of an election have 21 days to do so. However, no precise time frame is given as to the decision(s) pertaining to these petitions. Mauritian courts are legendary for taking their time in dispensing justice and matters can drag over years. We are reminded of the electoral petition filed by Raj Ringadoo against Ashock Jugnauth following the general election of 2005. The judgement of the Privy Council was delivered in November 2008 – three years after the petition was filed and less than two years before the 2010 general election. Bearing in mind that electoral petitions are filed in the spirit of correcting what are deemed as violations or malpractices committed during a specific election, it is at times frustrating that matters drag on for so long and in the process we are caught up by the next general election.

You rightly refer to the cases of Kenya and Malawi. Just after one month of the holding of the presidential elections in Kenya, its Supreme Court nullified the re-election of a sitting President, ordering a new vote to be held within 60 days after finding that the outcome had been tainted by irregularities. As for Malawi, what was referred to as the ‘Tipp Ex Election’ held in May 2019, was overturned by the country’s constitutional court and fresh elections were held by June 2020. It should be noted that in 2020, Malawi was awarded ‘country of the year’ by The Economist as the nation ‘that stood up for democracy’.

In fact, I must share with your readers that during my numerous interactions and discussions with high-ranking people across the continent, I am often asked to brief on the situation concerning the progress in relation to the electoral petitions. We must realise that we are on the radar of a number of observers who are watching the election space with attention.

«I have noted over the years (…) the insidious settling of a fear culture.»

The 2021 V-Dem Report classifies Mauritius in the league of “autocratising countries”. Our country is no more a liberal democracy but an electoral democracy. As a democracy scholar, what is your reading of this report?

The fact that Mauritius is now in the league of the top ten ‘autocratisers’ and has lost its status of liberal democracy is a matter of great concern. I would like to enlighten your readers on this shift from liberal to electoral democracy as one might wish to minimise this and say that Mauritius remains a democracy. Here I would like to quote the renowned democracy scholar – Larry Diamond who says, “an electoral democracy is far from being equal to a liberal democracy, it is in fact a diminished subtype of democracy”. Key features of a liberal democracy are the State’s effectiveness when it comes to good governance, functioning parliamentary committees, counter corruption commission, ombudsman offices, a national audit office and others. We note that most of these institutions have been gagged and captured. As a democracy scholar, I have since the last decade been researching and publishing on the multiple deficiencies of what I call our ‘picture-perfect democracy’ and been among the first few to draw attention to the slow but steady chipping of our democratic credentials.

Coming back to the V-Dem 2021 report, it showcases Mauritius as a country in decline by referring to blatant examples of the move towards a culture of autocracy. I am familiar with the methodology of V-Dem and can ascertain that it is both vigorous and in-depth. Although some might refer to the latest Mo Ibrahim Index (2020) that classifies Mauritius as first in Africa, reading beyond that mere classification, one notes that our country has been downgraded in a number sub-classifications such as public procurement procedure (-25), access to housing (-24), poverty reduction policies (-16.7) and participation/rights and inclusion (-8.6).

Not only are our democratic indicators worsening, but we also have more and more issues at the economic and financial level. Are all the indicators linked in a way or another?

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and the EU listing classify Mauritius respectively on the grey and black lists and this has significantly affected our Global Business Sector – an important economic pillar contributing directly 5.8% to the GDP in 2019. Mauritius has used both its democratic, economic/financial and legal indicators to market itself as the place to invest and do business. Absolutely, they are all interlink as they form part of what is referred to as a governance matrix and when we talk about governance it is political and economic governance. Now all this is under threat and more importantly there are a number of countries in Africa that are working hard at fixing both their democratic and economic credentials and waiting to step into the void left by our country.

The Government likes to say that democracy is alive and kicking in Mauritius, for eg the protest marches in the streets of Port-Louis...

Our political rights and civil liberties have not been completely confiscated and I agree that we have had two momentous protest marches that were essentially driven by civil society. However, at the same time there were a number of people, especially in the public and parastatal bodies, that were hesitant or fearful to attend as they might be have been singled out or identified for attending these protest marches. What I have noted over the years is the insidious settling of a fear culture and this has been exacerbated by the fact that people believe that patronage and nepotism run the show.

On the legislative front, a nonelected speaker has just suspended three elected members of parliament. They need to apologize or go to court. Can the court intervene (separation of powers)? Then how long will it take?

As mentioned earlier, our courts have been known to take their time and we are never certain concerning the time frame. What is happening to the legislature is shocking and might cause irreversible harm. Mauritius prides itself on the separation of powers and this is the first thing that all students studying the Mauritian political system parrot learn! Separation of powers operationalises itself when the executive is both limited, constrained and scrutinised by an independent legislature, judiciary and other institutions. I am not a legal or constitutional specialist and we will see how the matter is taking up by the courts and what legal mechanisms are at hand.

The Director of Audit could not access all of the government expenditures, because some files were being investigated at the level of ICAC.

The NAO report was quite clear when referring to ‘Access to records’ and that it was constrained in its task by files held by ICAC (for the purpose of investigation) and the Police Service (confidentiality clause in relation to the Safe City Project). This is a matter of concern as the NAO’s effective functioning ensures that the required checks and balances are been done when it comes to the use of public funds which in turn come from the pockets of Mauritian taxpayers!

Last year, government tried to silence the press and then moved on to instill fear among citizens who take to social media, by amending the section 46 of ICT Act.

We have noted a number of civil rights and liberties reign in. Ranging from the multiple suspension of the licence fee of a private radio station, the arrests of civilians for sharing content online deemed defamatory to the imposition of tax on digital services. As for the amendment to the ICTA to include the subsection (9) which speaks about “..deliver or show a message which is obscene, indecent, abusive, threatening, false or misleading, which is likely to cause or causes annoyance, humiliation, inconvenience, distress or anxiety to any person” is a deliberate means to shut down or intimidate social media users. In fact, this is very much in line with the autocratic rulebook!

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