Reflections on a 50-year-old system

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The electoral system in place in Mauritius has so far served relatively well our election processes at the general elections, municipal and village council elections in spite of a fragile social fabric. It has been able, to a very large extent, to inspire confidence in nation-building and has helped to maintain peace, security and stability vital for our economic, social, cultural and political development for decades. However, in an ever evolving and increasingly changing environment, it is always good, from time to time, to reflect on and when it is appropriate to review the drawbacks of the system which has been in operation for half a century now.

There is a general agreement that the electoral system operating in Mauritius is by all means free and fair in terms of voting procedures, voter registration, vote counting, absence of vote rigging or manipulation of ballot boxes. There is no dispute on these facts by and large. Nonetheless, it is far from being a clean one! The absence of an Election Campaign Finance Act among other things upsets the whole exercise. There is a general perception that election campaigns of major political parties are financed by dirty, illicit and black money; with the end result that big money more often than not has the power to tilt voter choice.

It is therefore in this context that we need to have a thorough review of the system. As a matter of fact, Mauritius needs a fundamental and comprehensive electoral reform. One that meets the needs and responds to the aspirations of the people of Mauritius because the situation and circumstances which prevailed at the time of our independence are not the same. Unfortunately, the proposals for an electoral reform, in Mauritius, always become a subject of discussion with general elections at the doorstep. It was the case before the last general elections and the same presently.

The proposals of electoral reform as spelt out by the government at the press conference held in September this year have in a large measure been cancelled out as a non-event. Other than adding 11 seats in the form of proportional representation to the existing First Past the Post (FPP) and some kind of coloration of the Best Loser System (BLS), and that too by autocratic means, the proposals do not address in substance the long awaited comprehensive and real reform by the general public. An electoral reform proposed by political parties, with the hope of inducing an alliance with another political party or parties will always remain a non-starter because people see in these demarches the motivations and personal interest of the proponents.

Therefore it did not come as a surprise when the remarks of a reporter from a respected newspaper at a recent press conference by the Prime Minister, caught the attention of an overwhelming majority of the televiewers, when he asked the Prime Minister whether the detailed proposal of the electoral reform was in the general interest of the public or was it merely a ploy to start consultations to materialize an electoral alliance with a targeted political party or parties.

The First Past The Post

Mauritius has successfully held several elections both during the colonial and post-independence periods under the FPP. The established norm is that it is immaterial whether the margin of victory is by one vote or thousands of votes. The system has so far served Mauritius fairly well, as well as in other established democracies of the world, in particular, the United States of America, the United kingdom, India, Canada to mention, but a few.

In the 1967 general elections, the Independence Party won 39 seats with 56 per cent of the total votes cast, while the PMSD won only 23 seats with 44 per cent of votes cast in its favor. Again in 1982 general elections the MMM/PSM with over 65 per cent of votes cast in its favor won all the 62 seats while the other parties including the Labour Party with over 30 per cent of the total votes cast in its favor did not win a single seat. The FPP was neither challenged in 1967, 1976 nor in 1982 because the concerned political parties had accepted to play by the established rules and did not engage in moving the goal post after the game was over.

Indeed, one may fairly argue that there is really nothing wrong with the FPP; the devil is in the details. The fact of the matter is that the system in Mauritius, has been profusely abused because of unhealthy political alliances that are made in the run up for general elections by established political parties in their quest to grab power at any cost. For example, who would have thought that the Labour Party, the PMSD will join an alliance, with the MSM of Jugnauth, a break away party of MMM in 1983; the same labour Party and PMSD who were swept out by the MMM/PSM led by the same Jugnauth only a year ago. Our general elections have been characterized and are replete with such examples of right, left and center alliances. However, where on earth for example have we seen at least over the last 75 years, the Conservatives and Labour Party in the U.K or the Congress Party and the BJP in India or the Republicans and Democrats in the United States reaching a pre-electoral alliance to win elections? In Mauritius we very often hear opposing political parties talk about “Arragement  a la Israelienne”to justify their incestuous alliance. Nonsense!  The Likhud of Yitzak Rabin and Labour Party of Shimon Peres did not make an alliance before the elections; they only joined hands when none of them were able to form a government on their own after the elections.

For now, the FPP can very well serve the purpose of general elections for decades to come in Mauritius. In the U.S Presidential elections of 2000 and 2016 both Al Gore and Hillary Clinton won more popular votes than the winners, George Bush and Donald Trump respectively. This, however, has not put in question the U.S constitutional requirement of 270 Electoral votes of Electoral College, for a person to be elected president of the United States, irrespective of the total number of popular votes obtained by the winner.

Proportional Representation

The question of a fair representation by adding a certain number of representatives at the National Assembly based on proportional representation to the FPP came to light when the MSM/Labour Party/ PMSD alliance won 43 seats and the MMM only 19 seats with less than one and a half percent of the difference of the total votes cast between them in the general elections of 1983. Since then the leader of the MMM has been consistent with his demand for the introduction of a certain number of representatives on the basis of proportional representation. This makes sense in the context of Mauritius to remedy the drawback of FPP, if one may say so, for a fair and equitable representation with regard to the total number of votes cast in the general elections. He has continued to advocate an electoral reform on this line. His dream for an electoral reform to his satisfaction nearly came to a fruition in 2014 but did not materialize because the general elections which the Labour/MMM alliance had expected to win by a sweeping victory turned out to be one of their most dismal performance.

Without prejudice to the above, we should always remain seized of the fact that the proposal for the introduction of a fair share of proportional representation is only one of the issues; there are many other issues that have to be addressed in the context of a comprehensive reform of our electoral system.

High handedness of the leaders

 With the passage of time our electoral system has perpetuated the high handedness of political leaders to make political alliances at will and in their choice of candidates, in an autocratic manner. The rank and file have very limited scope of interventions. In the United Staes, nominees for elections emerge out of the Primaries. In India, the party workers have ample say in the choice of a candidate for elections. In Mauritius, the system does not provide sufficient space at individual level. One is bound to join an established political party to stand a good chance to win an election. He or she is condemned to operate within a defined parameter, and tow what is quite often outdated and out of tune! Furthermore, the system often favors individuals to stand as candidates for general elections who are closely related by caste or community to the political leaders, or those with big money who are able to purchase their tickets. Additionally, if one is the son or daughter or close relatives of leaders the chances are better still! No wonder therefore, the system has ended up, over the last decades, in placing a second or third generation of Ramgoolam, Jugnauth, Boolell, Duval, Mohamed, Uteem controlling the political landscape of the country and in the near future we can perhaps add to the list, Berenger and Collendavelloo too!

Revert to the Formula of One Representative per Constituency.

During the 1967 general elections leading to Independence, one of the greatest threats that pre-occupied Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam leader of the Independence Party alliance among many others, was how to keep at bay the adverse effects of caste politics. In view of past experience both at party and individual level, he did not want the elections to be mired in caste considerations. In order to alley this fear and with a view to securing the support of different castes and communities, he preferred the strategy of having three candidates per constituency and chose the candidates largely as per the caste profile of the rural constituencies, in consultations with his allies Mr. Sookdeo Bissoondoyal and Sir Abdool Razack Mohamed. No wonder then that the constituencies with Hindu majority delivered fully on this. In the 1976 general elections, this arrangement did not give the same result. Time had changed! The advent of a new political party in the political arena, the MMM was the game changer.

The practice of electing three candidates per constituency discourages and acts as an impediment for individuals, particularly young persons to stand successfully against party candidates supported by big money. It curtails to a very large extent the fundamental freedoms and equal chances of others because it deprives them of a level playing field. We may therefore consider reverting to the formula of one representative per constituency as is available in most of the parliamentary democracies of the world. In this context, Mauritius can be divided in 60 constituencies, each one electing one representative; thereby enabling competing candidates to fight the elections, more or less on equal footing. This will also have the effect of bringing the elected representative in close proximity and directly accountable to his or her constituents. By the same token it will curtail to a great extent the unchecked unilateral power of political leaders in their choice of candidates; they will have to think carefully before imposing a candidate to the electorates.

Electoral Boundaries

A general consensus has emerged that there are serious discrepancies with regard to the electoral boundaries. They simply do not reflect the ground realities, hence the need to bring appropriate adjustments to remedy the situation in the larger interest of the nation. For example, how can one honestly digest the fact that a constituency with 21,530 electorates elects the same number of representatives to the National Assembly, compared to another constituency with 63, 527 electorates. This undoubtedly defeats by any stretch of imagination, the very essence of representation. However, we have to admit that these discrepancies have not come to light all of a sudden; they have been simmering for quite some time over the last 15 and 20 years. As long as the going was good, the major stakeholders, particularly the leaders of political parties had adopted a conspicuous silence over this. Nonetheless, it is quite noteworthy that no other than the Leader of the Opposition himself has now come out strongly in favor of a review of electoral boundaries in accordance with the constitution, with the possibility of seizing the Supreme Court on the matter, and if necessary the Privy Council. This is a right step in the right direction in the interest of justice and equity! Let us hope that the Leader of the Opposition in consultation with and in collaboration with likeminded people exhausts all the avenues to redress the matter!

Best Loser System

For quite some time, there has been a wide-ranging perception that the BLS is largely responsible for the perpetuation of communalism in the Mauritian society. This may be true to a certain extent but it certainly pales out in the face of caste-nepotism which is ravaging our society, like wild fire. The genesis of the BLS, stems out of the pre-occupation of the founding fathers of our constitution to ensure the security and stability of our multiracial and pluri-cultural society emerging into a sovereign nation at the time of independence. It was of paramount importance to guarantee each communal segment of the society a fair share in national representation at the highest level. The name of football teams such as Dodo, Faucon, Hindu Cadets, Muslim Scouts, Racing Club, Tamil Cadets until the early eighties is a stark reminder of how the Mauritian society was divided on race and communal lines even in sport which is supposed to bring people together. We can very well understand what was going on at the social, cultural, business and government and private sector levels.

Despite the fact that the Best Loser System is not the sole factor that legitimizes communalism, it is now opportune to ask the question as to whether communal representational balance under the BLS still serves the legitimate interest of our nation? For sure the removal of the Best Loser System or some kind of coloration will not make communalism disappear from the face of Mauritius; communal entities will continue to weigh heavily for decades to come. However, after 50 years as a sovereign nation, it is incumbent upon all of us to make serious effort to gradually remove the hurdles which act as obstacles for a healthy integration of the Mauritian society.

An interesting aspect of the BLS that may retain our attention is that it is through this same BLS since the general elections in 1967, the Parliament has been able to retrieve such high-profile political stalwarts such as Sir Abdool Razack Mohamed, Sir Gaetan Duval, Sir Kher Jagatsingh, Mr. Paul Berenger and many other prominent political figures at different periods in our tryst and triumph with democracy and democratic values. Nonetheless it is also true that this same BLS has recuperated representatives, to put it politely, who have not stood up to their tittle of Honorable, so graciously conferred upon them by the Constitution.

Finally, if the BLS in the present context, as some argue, adversely affects the spirit of consolidating the Mauritian entity, we may very well consider converting the eight Best Loser seats into electable ones. In other words, we can instead of 62 have a National Assembly of 70 elected members. This can be achieved without great hassle in the context of re-arrangement of our electoral boundaries. The Chair of the Electoral Boundaries Commission should be able to work out an appropriate formula to absorb the eight additional seats, relinquished by the BLS, based on an equitable representation on the number of voters in each constituency nationwide.

Increase in women representation

The proposal to reserve one third of candidates in favor of women in the party list of any political party in the general elections is a welcome move but does not go far enough in women empowerment and representation in the National Assembly. By putting a ceiling on the number of female representation to one third, we will be imposing a limit to their participation to the said level in future until such time that there is another review. Women have the necessary capabilities and potentials to be 50 % of representatives or even more in the years to come. Therefore, there is no need to put a cap to their engagement and participation in the elections. This issue can be addressed by the political parties who can mutually arrive at an understanding that they would align at least one third female candidates in the forthcoming general elections and gradually increase the said number in the years to come. Setting quotas has often proved to be counter-productive in the long run.

Candidats “l’imposte”

The availability of free education for over four decades has provided a level playing field in education opportunities to all the citizens of Mauritius. This has resulted in highly educated individuals with regard to academia, social workers, professionals in various fields such as doctors, engineers, lawyers etc, and people with real interest in politics in every nook and corner of our island. It is difficult to understand as to why major political parties continue to field candidates from elsewhere and who are not residents of the constituency. In the second decade of the twenty-first century Mauritius, this is tantamount to a gross insult to the intellect, maturity, capacity and capability of potential candidates who are residents of the constituencies under siege by outsiders. In real sense parachuting candidates from outside defeats the very meaning of representation.

Why on earth should a political party field an individual from the North to stand for an election in a constituency in the South? Has she or he no taker at home? Political parties should urgently consider halting this practice; the sooner the better! Nevertheless, an exception could be made to the rule in respect of Independent candidates and also for leaders and deputy leaders of political parties because they are sensed to shepherd their troop and campaign at the nation level.

Senate

Since independence in 1967, Mauritius has held 10 general elections out of which five of them have been won, for evident reasons by political alliances with an overwhelming majority, securing over 75 percent of the seats. This is unhealthy for parliamentary democracies because it bestows upon the government issued out of such elections, unchecked power, a kind of majoritarian dictatorship in parliamentary democracy, to amend the constitution, in particular. Sometimes very hastily. The absence another legislative house does allow this to happen in our country. As a matter of fact, even in the Presidential system of governments where Presidents are either elected by Electoral College votes or by a majority of popular votes, their power is often limited by institutions which are in place to act as checks and balances. To remedy the situation in Mauritius, there is a need to put in place a Senate. Broadly the Senate may be composed of 21 members: 20 Senators in respect of Mauritius, one senator per constituency and one in respect of Rodrigues and other outer islands, each one elected strictly under the First Past the Post.  The term of office of a senator should be for a period of six years so that it exceeds the term of office of a member of the National Assembly and overlaps in the mandate of the next government. The Vice-President of the Republic of Mauritius may be given the responsibility to the chair of the Senate.

The next logical question that we may be brought to ask is whether it is worth spending money on the Senators and the institution of Senate. The answer should ordinarily be in the affirmative because we are talking about the checks and balances in the work of the National Assembly. It is not how much money that we may be spending in this respect, rather how well the money is being spent. The co-existence of a Senate side by side with the National Assembly can provide a greater insight in legislative matters concerning our country and can as well be able to act as a deterrent for good money being thrown after bad money in the larger interest of the nation. The other question is from where will the additional money come from? A thorough and close scrutiny of the Report of the Director of Audit and the Public Accounts Committee reveal millions of rupees of taxpayers money which are being wasted or wrongly utilized or not well accounted for annually. An efficient management of public expenditure may release additional money within the budget for better use. Mauritius is aspiring to join the High Income Group Countries in the near future. This implies that it will have reached the level to generate sufficient financial resources to set up institutions of vital interest to Mauritius. The Senate could be one of them.

Referendum

It is quite difficult to comprehend the rationale as to why a decision on an electoral reform should be confined to and become the preserve of elected members of the political parties at the National Assembly. Isn’t it an anachronism? True that Parliamentarians are the elected representatives of the country, but does it in real sense also give them the unfettered moral license to conduct business on all matters without consultations with those who have elected them? We should not lose sight of the fact that the parliamentarians take their seats in the National Assembly because they have been voted to be there by the electorates to represent them and conduct the business of government and opposition on their behalf. In other words, the electorates should be the deciding factor, particularly, on a matter like electoral reform and constitutional amendments. In order to render power to them, it would be advisable to allow them to have their say through a referendum so that it meets the real meaning of “Vox Populi Vox Dei”.

Before proceeding to the referendum, a Committee on Electoral Reform should be set up by government, composed of three co-chairs, none of them being a member of the Bureau of a political party, with a mandate to complete their work within a period of two years. Each co-chair would be responsible for a segment of the reform. Hearings of the political leaders could be under the responsibility of the First co-chair, Religious Socio-Cultural Bodies under the Second co-chair and Business, Industry, and private individuals under the Third co-chair.  After the hearings are over on a scheduled date, each co-chair would be required to summarize their findings to a maximum of 10 clusters, each one containing relevant items. The Co-ordinator of the co-chairs, after listing the 30 clusters, or as the case may be, in a consolidated list would call a meeting of all the stakeholders to apprise them of the essentials that have been faithfully retained of the total hearings.

The Committee would subsequently submit its recommendations to the government for the purpose of holding a referendum. Any item receiving 75 or more than 75 percent of the votes should be considered as an item reflecting the will of an overwhelming majority of the people. This requirement will also be in line with the Constitution of the Republic of Mauritius which requires 75 per cent of votes in the National Assembly to adopt a constitutional amendment.

The Committee could start its work now under the present government, assuming that the general elections are held by the end of 2019 or early 2020 so that its work overlaps in the mandate of the next government. Change or no change in government, the co-chairs should be allowed to pursue their work without fear and favor!

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