In the evolution of any democracy, as in most things, progress must be perpetual, otherwise any system soon ossifies. Or worse, it starts going backwards. This is the lesson that we must draw from the renewed demand for an ethnic census coming from some quarters.
The main reason why the PMSD and Shakeel Mohamed of the Labour Party want to see a return of the ethnic census is because of the half-way house manner in which electoral reform has been treated by successive governments. The ethnic census itself was abolished in 1982. That means that the ethnic figures used to calculate best loser seats by the Electoral Commission date back to 1972. But once the ethnic census was abolished, all governments coming after that simply baulked at pushing for a wider electoral reform.
What this means is that Mauritius is stuck in a mediocre status quo which satisfies neither side: on the one hand, the Best Loser System — in its stated function of boosting representation of minorities — is not able to work properly because it’s reliant on outdated figures from 1970s. On the other, everybody is careful not to upset the apple cart and is wary of actually bringing in electoral reform that would replace the BLS with another formula. It’s clear that the system does not work and in 2012, that is precisely what the UNHCR told Mauritius: you cannot straddle both sides simultaneously; if you want the current BLS to work properly, you need an up-to-date ethnic census. Or replace it with something else. This is the contradiction that the PMSD and Mohamed are wedging their demands through. And to be fair, there is little point in labelling these demands as reactionary or retrograde. After all, they are merely repeating what the UNHCR suggested to Mauritius in 2012.
If the PMSD and Mohamed are getting any purchase for this demand today, it’s because instead of pushing through with electoral reform to make such anomalies irrelevant, all the Mauritian state has done since the UNHCR judgement is come up with a mediocre ‘mini-amendment’ that allowed election candidates to choose not to declare their ethnicity. In other words, it gave the temporary illusion of progress without really solving anything at all. And now the chickens are coming home to roost. There is only so far that you can get by on bluff before somebody calls it.
To dismiss this entire episode as communalism vs Mauritianism — as tempting as such a no-chewing-necessary answer is — is frankly missing the point. The fact this apparent step backwards to the pre-1982 system is being seriously considered at all is simply because instead of moving forward on electoral reform, most major Mauritian political parties and all governments, preferred a bovine, vegetative status quo. This should highlight the danger of this continuing and irresponsible complacency. In the final analysis, if you are not moving forward, you are inevitably slipping back.
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