Analysis-Electoral reforms: when the feel good factor is over

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Mauritius has 20 multi-member constituencies whereby the voter must cast as much votes as there are seats to be filled. Two seats are reserved for Rodrigues to arrive at the 62 constituency seats in Parliament. As from 1982 onwards contests for the Rodrigues seats have been left to Rodrigues parties although they have also benefitted from seats under the BLS system. A debate on the BLS seems irrelevant now that it is quasi accepted that it will be “subsumed” with the PR seats. Moreover it has now been revealed that the BLS was a “temporary solution” meant to last for 3 general elections only.

Be it as it may, all the experts who have discussed on the PR systems so far have rather talked about the introduction of an additional number of seats in Parliament through a party list and on the method of allocating those additional seats. Of the latest three proposals for PR seats only the Collendavelloo report talked about the possibility of casting of 2 types of votes – one for the candidates voted at the constituency level (FPTP) and one for the party of choice at national level (PR).

This closely mirrors the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system used in New Zealand since 1996. It is also used in Germany for more than 60 years and adopted by South Africa, Norway, Sweden and Denmark through a Closed Party list whereby the voters select the party and the party determines the ranking of candidates on the party list. Parties that do not reach a certain fixed threshold do not qualify for additional seats.

Under MMP a voter casts 2 types of votes on the same ballot paper. One for his preferred constituency candidates under FPTP and one for his preferred political party (to appoint PR MPs). A party’s entitlement to seats in Parliament is based on total constituency votes or total party votes. Once the entitlement is determined, the number of constituency seats already obtained is deducted from this number and additional seats are allocated to the party to bring its share of seats up to its proportional entitlement.

The additional seats allocated to the party are then chosen from the party list or from among its unreturned candidates where dual or double candidacy is allowed. Appointments are made by the appropriate independent institutions and not by party leaders as it is proposed for Mauritius - partly at least. Table 1 below depicts the probable composition of our Parliament in 2010 based on full proportionality of votes.

PR in Mauritius will be based on constituency votes, assumed to be equivalent to party votes, which does not necessarily hold true in a multiracial country. Our leaders must also clarify if PR for them is only limited to the introduction of a few bonus seats in Parliament - which seats will then be distributed by them in the ratio of votes obtained by them respectively under the FPTP. Or do they really intend to introduce full proportionality as described above whereby the percentage of seats obtained equates the percentage of votes obtained. If PR Seats are allocated as a “Bonus” based on the percentage of national votes obtained then there is no rebalancing exercise for the second best party as shown in table 2 below.

Having said this there is no sound explanation as to the quantum of 16 additional seats. Why 16 and not 14 or 24? As it is proposed the ratio of constituency seats to PR seats is 4:1. Why can’t the ratio be 3:1 as proposed by Sithanen just like in New Zealand or 1:1 as in Germany? A reduction of the ratio would certainly ensure that no single party or coalition will again control more than 75% of the votes in Parliament even under PR.

Next is the problem of the eligibilty threshold. If the proposed eligibility threshold of 10%, is applied to the 2010 election results then every party would have had to get at least 196,371 votes nationally to qualify for PR Seats. In 2010 the votes of all other parties (including independent candidates) amounted to 6.34% of total valid votes, implying that 41,499 voters do not have a representative in parliament today and the introduction of PR will leave them out again. 

At this point, it is interesting to note the PR threshold level set by a few countries: The threshold of 10% is therefore too high and restricts the ability new political parties to emerge. It favors larger parties or coalitions of larger parties. A lower threshold of say 5% promotes – inclusion – which is so crucial to stability and getting everybody on board. After all proportional representation is about inclusion of minorities voices. 

The lower threshold of 0% – 5% have not promoted the emergence of small parties on communal grounds in Germany, New Zealand or South Africa. The latter is composed of whites, colored, Indians and black voters further split into various cultural & linguistic tribes. 

Why should we therefore be so scared of the emergence of small parties in Mauritius? One should not forget the contributions of small parties like the IFB, CAM, PSM,PMSD and by extension the MSM in the development of the political landscape of Mauritius. Independence would not have been a reality in 1967 without the support of small parties like the CAM and the IFB. The simple fact of setting such a high barrier to entry may force the small parties to whip up support underground over the years until they become a real threat to the whole social fabric. What about equal opportunity? Everybody with the same potential must be given the same opportunity irrespective of size. Politicians must understand that tailor made system to suit their ego will not prevent them losing the plot when the tide turns.

This leads us to the exercise of appointing the MPs for the additional seats. The proposal is that PR seat holders be appointed by the party leaders in their own deliberate judgment, after the election results are proclaimed. This proposal is not only retrograde but an insult to the Collective intelligence of all Mauritians. Whether the system is hybrid or not is of no relevance. Party leaders cannot be given two balls to shoot the same penalty unless cronyism is to be further encouraged. Worldwide this exercise is left to the Electoral Commissions (EC). Mauritius cannot be an exception. The Parties should submit their Party List to the EC before the election and specify the ranking of candidates to whom the PR Seats are eventually allocated. Party leaders’ roles in the system should be restricted only to nominate a balanced list of candidates on the Constituency list (FPTP) and the Party List (PR). They cannot appoint MPs unless the proposed electoral reform also wants party leaders to subsume the role of the Electoral Commission. If double candidacies are allowed then party lists should be made of no less than 82 candidates. The name of candidates elected under the FPTP will just be struck off from that list before PR seats are allocated.

The method of allocation of PR Seats and for this purpose all the seats in a proportional system of elections is based on sound methods already tested, tried and proven. Many such methods do exist like the Dhondt, Sainte Lague, modified Sainte Lague, Scheprers and others. Very few countries use the wasted votes for national Parliaments as proposed in the consultation paper. Wasted votes are the undesired children of the FPTP system. At the last general election of 2010 at least 118,247 votes were directly “wasted” on independent candidates and smaller parties. On top of this according to the Sithanen report a further 785,124 votes were wasted on unreturned candidates of the two main opposing blocs. We should then infer that “wasted votes” amounted to 46% of the 1,963,714 valid votes (654,571valid voters). How can we therefore call this innovative and chose “wasted votes” as the method to allocate the additional PR seats? Inequalities and unfairness of the FPTP will perpetuate indefinitely. It is advisable to review this preferred option for the allocation of the PR Seats if reform is to be meaningful. If wasted votes were applied to Mauritius over the 1967- 2010 period then at least 19 seats would have been under allocated to the losing party or coalition.

There must be no qualm on the gender issue more so that by so doing we are honoring our commitment to the SADC of having at least 30% woman representation in our Parliament. The opposition is going a step further proposing that 50% of the PR seats be allocated to women. The same applies to double candidacies, with the exception that the consultation paper is silent on the constitutional right of a party list candidate elected as MP to contest a bye election. Another flaw in the proposed reform is the subject of floor crossing or “Transfuges”. It is absurd to have two types of MPs in Parliament, one that has the right to cross the floor and one that cannot. The reform proposal is totally dumb on the management of the whole reformed system and its implementation mechanism.

Finally one can question the timing of this reform. There can be no urgency that requires the expediency of such important reform. The Prime Minister cannot expect the population to react to the reform proposal within 42 days when he has taken nearly 9 years to formulate it. It would be more reasonable to get the voters to understand the proposals well. Public interest must always prevail over any other interest.

We have to dissociate the Resistance & Alternative Constitutional Challenge from the PR proposal. This is a straightforward case, with a plea that a person standing at an election must not be compelled to declare his ethnic membership in order to be able to stand as candidate in an election. Obviously it is closely linked to the BLS enshrined in the first schedule of our Constitution and also to the population census on ethnic basis rightly abolished in 1982.One can safely ponder why a “temporary solution” meant to last for three years only had to be given constitutional backing and by whom?

Notwithstanding the above nothing prevented the Prime Minister from circulating his proposals as far back as in 2012 to respect the ruling of the courts and the UNHCR on the ethnic issue. The release of this paper at the eve of the next general election can only be perceived as a move from someone sensing a major defeat looming ahead and trying to guarantee him a reasonable number of seats in the next legislature. The image of the great democratic and reformist leader that the Prime Minister wants to portray of himself would have befitted him better had he not dragged his feet over the issue for so long.

It can be safely inferred that the Prime Minister will face an uphill battle to drive in the reform, as he is not certain to get the required majority to have his proposal adopted in the house.

The best course of action in this case would be for electoral reforms to be voted at the beginning of the next legislature by whoever wins. Every party will have time to fully make their PR proposal and ask for popular support. And the population at large will be able to participate in the decision through their votes to give the chosen PR system its full legitimacy. The courts and all international institutions will undoubtedly support this move.

There is no greater blind person than the one who does not want to see and no greater deaf person than the one who does not want to hear.

The PM cannot expect the population to react to the reform proposal within 42 days when he has taken nearly 9 years to formulate it.

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