Ram Seegobin: “What we have been witnessing is the transformation of the state apparatus a ‘Jugnauth State’.”

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This week Ram Seegobin of LALIT talks to Weekly. He explains why he is worried about the government’s proposal to reform the party financing system, what the government has got wrong with electoral reform and why he thinks that what we are witnessing is the rise of the ‘Jugnauth state’.

Since 2014, several laws have been enacted into the constitution. Are we better or worse off democratically speaking? 
What we have been witnessing is the transformation of the state apparatus into what we refer to as a ‘Jugnauth State’. It’s not so much the party or the government, but a move by the Jugnauth family, father and son, to take control over various institutions. It’s a dangerous thing that’s happening. And the laws that have been proposed all push in the same direction. 

Is the opposition insensitive to the dangers you are talking about? 
I don’t think it’s insensitive. Everyone knows how dangerous the situation has become.

So how were we allowed to reach such a situation?
I think it’s deliberate. I suppose for Pravind Jugnauth who has become prime minister on a slightly dodgy basis – I say slightly because it may stand up legally but it doesn’t stand up politically or ethically – it’s important to get thorough control over state institutions. The main one is obviously the MBC. There is not a single day that when we don’t have to sit and watch him and listen to his speeches, doing the most banal things like inaugurating a children’s playground. For a minister who has got two huge portfolios, prime minister and the Finance Ministry, one wonders how he has got time to do all these things for the MBC cameras. 

Apart from the MBC, what kind of other institutions do you see in danger of becoming part of the Jugnauth machine? 
The latest one is the Electoral Supervisory Commission (ESC). Also, when we talk about the law about the financing of political parties, certainly there is a repeated attempt for Jugnauth himself to get a toehold into the ESC. That’s actually very dangerous. 

What kind of dangers do you see in practical terms? 
Let’s go into the proposed legislation and see how that ties up. If you look at the ESC and the Electoral Commission, they are like constitutional creatures and we have been lucky so far that they have maintained a credulity that is remarkable for an ex-colony. This has meant that election after election, we generally accept the results, except in 1991 when someone was perplexed by the results, because we have got an ESC and a commissioner that have a lot of historical credibility. Now when there is a clear move for a prime minister to go a foothold in the ESC through the appointment of his own people, that credibility is being eroded and that’s a bit dangerous. 

Aren’t we overreacting? What can one person do on a commission of seven or eight? 
At face value, not much, except if you take it in conjunction with the law about the public financing of political parties. Now this law is on the one hand changing the nature of political parties quite dramatically. It’s kind of pretending that a political party is something that just raises donations and spends astronomical amounts on elections. This new law for example, does not account for the existence of a party like LALIT that doesn’t get donations. We have voluntary contributions by all our members to finance all our activities. This new law does not acknowledge that parties can get financing from their own members; it only sees that parties can get outside donations. So it’s changing the nature of the political party. This law will also erode the credibility of the ESC and the commissioner. 

How? 
They have well-defined roles in the constitution and that is to keep the electoral registers up to date. And then they are in charge of supervising the elections. For those roles, they cannot be challenged in court according to the constitution. Now this law as proposed is turning the ESC and the commissioner into a sort of registrar of political parties. 

Isn’t it high time that these commissions were given more powers? 
Yes, but the power should have been to control expenses. This law acknowledges that this is not being done. 

But to control expenses, you would have to control donations as well, wouldn’t you? 
Not necessarily. You can control expenses by having quite strict rules about what a political party can or can’t do. There are plenty of rules that can be brought. 

What are your fears if the EC and the ESC supervise donations? 
They are not supervising donations for elections only. The new bill will allow them to be in total control of the finances of the party permanently. As for controlling donations, let’s look at that carefully. Anonymous donations are prohibited. That means if any civil servant, employee of a parastatal body or a municipality wants to donate to a political party of his choice without being actively engaged in any political activity, they can’t do that for fear of being victimised. Donations in kind are not controlled, so a company could donate crates of beer; that’s not accounted…The law gives to the political parties in power powers that they shouldn’t have. 

Was this intentional? 
Yes. 

To starve the opposition? 
Yes! You ask me what one person can do on the ESC. The ESC will have the power to investigate into the books of parties; in other words, members of the ESC will have the power to look at who is donating what and where. The fact that there is someone on the commission close to the regime, that creates a problem. Once you give this additional role to the ESC and the commissioner, then you run the risk of involving the ESC and the commissioner into political shenanigans and maneuvering and that actually will affect the credibility of the ESC and the commissioner to a large extent. 

So would you go as far as some are saying that we will no longer have free and fair elections under the new law? 
Yes! We are attacking the basis of our democratic traditions and our democratic culture. We are attacking the base of that. 

Every time the government has introduced a law that does not seem to have a clear purpose, there is always some calculation being made. Do you share that cynicism? 
Yes, I do. Yes, we should think of how to stop money coming in for political contributions and ending up in a family trust or a safe, through controlling expenses as it’s done everywhere. This new law is putting a ceiling of Rs80 million for each political party to spend. Surely, you must spend that kind of money and what is left you build a tower with. They quote the Sachs Commission saying that spending limit is “observed only in their breach”. Why not try and block that, rather than change the nature of the ESC and commissioner to become registrars? There is another point, according to the constitution, if you are proposing anything that has to do with elections, before anything is proposed; you need the comments of the ESC and the commissioner. Do we have those comments? Have they asked the ESC whether they want to become registrar of political parties? My other question is: is the law being proposed not for electoral reform purposes, not because they are worried about democracy, but as something to bring to the table when the time comes for negotiations with the MMM? 

Do you think the MMM is in an on-mood? 
The MMM is leaving this option open: ‘we will vote under protest’. I mean, what protest? It means it’s negotiable. 

If you take the reform proposed out of this context. Do you agree with it mostly, not quite or not at all?
What’s being proposed in Parliament now we do not agree with on several points. The main point is that there is no point in kind of wasting a lot of brain power and man hours to think up of a way to fill up 70 seats in Parliament at the moment. We are not impressed by this kind of proportional representation to supposedly give a bigger voice to the opposition. 

Isn’t it better for democracy to have a stronger opposition?
No. The democratic deficit we have is not so much to do with the representation of the opposition in Parliament, but rather with the role of Parliament itself. Suppose you have this reform and give the opposition another 10 seats in Parliament. What difference does that make? Whether the opposition has five or 10 more seats under PR, eventually the lady will say ‘the ayes have it’. You can talk and shout all you like and that’s it. Now we think that we should look at the role of Parliament itself and the equilibrium between the Legislative and Executive. The Executive is already overinflated. What we are proposing is that we are not so worried about the additional MPs and expenses; we do, on the other hand, mind MPs and minister getting a lifelong pension when they are 45. We mind that Parliament will decide its own pay. But the main problem is to find a way for Parliament to have a role. You have seen what happens in the US for example, where you have a president who can propose somebody for a post and that person has to go through a senate committee that will grill them. We could have something like that here in the form of permanent parliamentary committees. We already have two: the Public Accounts Committee made up of MPs from government and the opposition that oversee public expenses and another Parliamentary Committee to oversee the work of the ICAC. 

But the Parliamentary Committee on the ICAC is a joke, isn’t it?
That’s because of what the ICAC is, not because of what the committee is. We propose that okay Parliament is expanded, but that it should have permanent parliamentary committees to look into things like recruitment and creation of employment, agriculture and a whole range of important topics where these committees work continuously and make proposals to the government. Now that will not only give Parliament a better role with respect to the Executive, but will give the opposition MPs a role, rather than just make a speech and get voted down. We think that instead of thinking of how to fill up 70 seats, we should increase the function and power of Parliament because that’s the main deficit that we have. 

What about the proposal of leaders of political parties nominating candidates without having to go through an election. Are you okay with that? 
Absolutely not. I think that’s a total travesty. I don’t think that system exists anywhere in the world, not even in monarchies. We are totally against that. 

Is there anything new and positive in the proposed reform?
I think Anerood Jugnauth is still quite influential and he has never believed in any form of electoral reform. He believes in the first-past-the-post system because he thinks it brings about a stable government. There he is wrong because the first-past-the-post does not guarantee you a stable government with a comfortable majority. Anerood Jugnauth has never had a stable government. We can have first-past-the-post and end up with a hung Parliament. It’s not the first-past-the-post that produces a workable majorit;, it’s quite by chance. So if you have a government with Anerood Jugnauth still in it, who does not believe in electoral reform and if you have got a son who between you and me, does not believe in anything, he has no convictions, what reform can you expect from that government? That’s why you have this proposal where you have elections through first-past-the-post, a minimal proportional representation of 12 – which is very low – and even those will be shared in a way that the alliance that gets more votes will get a bigger share. 

It defeats the purpose…
It increases the disparity which more than defeats the purpose. And what defeats the purpose. Worse, you have another 6-10 best loser seats to be nominated by the leader and those will supposedly be used to restore the results of the first-past-the-post! Can’t you see the hand of Anerood Jugnauth in it? It’s saying ‘We are proposing a reform that makes sure that things stay as they are or become worse’! 

What about the declaration of assets bill? 
There is nothing new in it but there’s nothing terribly bad either. It’s not a regression. 

Funny how we are happy that at least there is one bill that is not eating into our democracy. 
Sometimes, when we have meetings, people say, ‘Oh but this government isn’t doing anything.’ I am tempted to say, ‘Well, thank god for that!’ 

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