An evaluation of the rodrigues regional assembly (amendment) bill: Five proposals to snatch some concessions from the jaws of a deeply flawed reform

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In order to limit the consequences of the voting formula proproposed by the government to Rodriguans, the author makes some recommendations and tries to salvage something from the proposed electoral reform.

Prefatory note

Cabinet has approved the Bill to amend the voting formula to the Rodrigues Regional Assembly. Any independent observer has considerable difficulties to understand why Government is so earnestly resolved on forcefully imposing a blatantly unfair electoral reform on Rodrigues on the very eve of polling. In spite of no prior informed discussion with the various stakeholders, no in depth negotiation , no educated engagement with electoral experts, a strong resistance and acrimony from a sizeable section of the population, and comprising many controversial features that do not exist elsewhere. And to pour petrol on fire, should the Mouvement Rodriguais vote against the Bill, this landmark legislation will be bulldozed in the Regional Assembly with the casting vote of an unelected member to deliver a wafer thin majority of 11 to 10. This is indeed a very sad spectacle for democracy in the island and surely our compatriots of Rodrigues deserve better than this high-handed attitude.

It is plain that there is an absolute necessity to have more disinterested exchanges on the reforms and to consult domain experts as the Ministerial Committee does not have all the knowledge and experience to strike a balance between stability and governability on the one hand and fairness, representation and inclusion on the other. It is clear that once the new voting system is enacted, the Regional Assembly will be dissolved and elections held. Why this unbecoming alacrity and urgency to modify the system so late in the night? Why can’t we wait to decide in a composed, consultative and enlightened manner what should be the best voting formula for our fellow citizens of Rodrigues?

Against this backcloth, some second best recommendations are proposed in a last ditch attempt to salvage something from an inherently defective electoral reform. It is essentially a considered effort to make the best of a bad deal by limiting its pernicious consequences on the democratic fabric of Rodrigues.

The five proposals explained

Proposal one

To lower the number of additional seats from a maximum of 6 to 4 and to shrink the manufactured majority from 3 to 1 seat.

The second object of the Bill is to provide ‘for a MORE equitable representation of parties in the Regional Assembly’.

Yet it goes on to do exactly the contrary by creating an artificial seat majority which is not linked at all to the share of vote polled. Equitable representation in elections can only be underpinned by the share of vote garnered by a party. Unsurprisingly, such anti-democratic provisions do not exist in any country with a mixed voting system as it would be an utter denial of the wish of the people. Neither in Germany nor in New Zealand nor in Lesotho and not in the devolved assemblies of Wales, Scotland and London. More specifically, the Bill provides that a party with only 7 First Past The Post (FPTP) seats, on probably 35 % of the vote, if not less, will be gifted an additional 6 seats to secure an overall majority of 3 members in the Assembly. These 6 seats would be without consideration of the party’s vote share. Worse, it could widen the margin of victory from 2 seats under FPTP to 3 members after the allocation of the 6 artificial seats.

As the stability features of the system will be enhanced with the introduction of an anti-defection clause, it is proposed to lower the artificial majority from three seats to one seat as is the case today. Unless of course, the party has enough vote to command a larger majority. It is suggested that the maximum number of seats to be unnaturally awarded comes down to four from six. The argument is a simple but compelling one. What should matter in a democratic election is the share of vote and not a constitutional artifice to manufacture a majority. If the people of Rodrigues cast their vote in such a way as not to give an overall majority to any party, that wish must be respected. And not perverted by a subterfuge to give an advantage to one party, irrespective of its share of vote.

“There is a major difference between candidacies and election and we should therefore be fair to women in Rodrigues.”

Proposal two

The allocation of the artificial seats shall not apply to a party that has not polled the highest share of popular vote.

It is critical to qualify the allotment of these undemocratic seats that are independent of the share of vote. They should not be given to a par- ty that has not captured the highest share of popular vote. This is essential to prevent an electoral hijack by a minority party. A party may elect 7 FPTP members and be eligible for the additional seats on 43.1 % of the vote while another party may take only 5 such seats with 55.8 % of the vote and be denied victory. It could easily have occurred in the 2006 Assembly elections. Under these circumstances, there should be no apportionment of phantom seats and the outcome after the apportionment of the 5 PR seats should determine the winner. Otherwise there would be a double injustice. First the party with fewer votes would have won more FPTP seats. And second, to add insult to injury, that very party would be allocated many artificial seats to produce a larger majority. This is simply converting a winner of vote into a loser of seats and a loser of vote into a winner of seats through an electoral trickery.

Proposal three

The allotment of the 5 PR seats shall be carried out to ensure that no gender has more than two third of the overall number of seats.

The first object of the Bill ‘is to reform the electoral system in Rodrigues by providing for gender EQUALITY’.

It states that ‘each registered party presenting more than 2 candidates at an ordinary election shall ensure that no more than two thirds of the total number of candidates of that party in the 6 local regions are of the same sex’.

Forget the fact that one would have thought that equality is defined as a state of parity, especially in status, rights, and opportunities and that two thirds of one gender cannot certainly mean equality. Worse, even one third of women representation will be difficult with the specific provisions of the Bill for at least one third of candidates being of either gender. As there are only two candidates per local region, it will be difficult to operationalise the gender equality provision. It is highly possible for neither of the four women candidates (out of twelve in the 6 regions) to be elected if they are fielded in difficult constituencies (say regions 1 and 2 for OPR female candidates and regions 4 and 6 for MR women candidates). Equally, if women are ranked third and fourth on the party list, they may not be chosen as PR member if only the first two on the list are eligible Hence the initial suggestion of a parity of one man and one woman per riding.

A compromise to have gender fairness is to allocate the 5 PR seats so that account is taken of the number of women returned in the 6 constituencies, to make certain that they constitute at least one third of the total of elected members. This would act as a compensatory gen- der formula. For instance, if there were four women elected from the 12 FPTP seats, the allocation of the 5 PR members would proceed as contained in the Bill. However, if there were no woman returned from the constituency contests, then all 5 PR seats would go to women from the appropriate parties. This would guarantee at least close to 30 % of either gender in the Assembly. There is a major difference between candidacies and election and we should therefore be fair to women in Rodrigues and secure Assembly representation as opposed to merely standing as candidates.

Proposal four

The choice of the number of double candidacies should be left to parties and not restricted to the party leader only.

The Bill provides for only the lea- der of a party to be eligible for double candidacy. This restriction does not exist in any country with a mixed electoral system. The choice should be left to the party as it is an important component of its electoral strategy. The restriction also does not address the problem of a PR candidate from a party campaigning against his constituency colleagues. The recommendation is to allow parties to decide on the number of double candidacies as is the case in countries with such mixed systems. Some could opt for no double candidacy at all while others may decide to have few candidates who compete in constituencies while also featuring on the Party list. It should be their choice and they should assume their responsibilities.

Proposal five

There should be a by–election to replace a vacant FPTP seat, as is the case now

The Bill provides for anti-defection provisions so as to enhance stability and prevent blackmails and other malpractices, even if it is a contestable clause especially for members who are nominally elected in their constituencies. However, we should follow best international practices to replace members who have forfeited their seats due to floor crossing. In the case of a PR member, he should be replaced by the next person on the party list, provided he still belongs to the appropriate party. In the case of a FPTP member, we must continue with the current exercise of holding a by-election. This is the standard norm in countries with mixed systems. We simply cannot appoint the next person on the list as the member is directly and nominally elected by the people. The choice must therefore be returned to the electorate.

Concluding remark

The best solution for Rodrigues would be to defer the reform of the voting formula, to have an informed de- bate, to consult experts and to introduce the new electoral system after the forthcoming elections. However, if Government appears determined to bulldoze the Bill through the Regional Assembly and the National Assembly, then it may be worthwhile to consider some amendments with a view to mitigating its defects and doing some damage control. The five suggestions contained in this paper purport precisely to achieve that limited goal. Essentially to make the best of a deeply flawed deal.

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