A Retrograde Step Back For Democracy

Some leaders will never learn. PR is anathema to the multitude, the more so in the light of enduring mess caused by the introduction of PR in the Rodrigues electoral system. The people’s vote and majority rule at the polls is and must remain the final arbiter in all matters relevant to democracy in the country

Democracy is an absolute concept. It cannot be rigged in the name of pseudo-fairness by self proclaimed high priests of electoral reform nor can it be watered down or subverted to pander to the parochial interests of politicians. Its fundamental principles and core values which were defined and strengthened during the arduous struggle for our independence and the rights of the common man cannot be tinkered with. Their sanctity and improvement remain the preserve of the people. The term democracy which comes from Greek literally means ‘rule by the (simple) people. In the city states of Greece, the people exercised their power by voting directly on any issue. This seminal principle of democracy must prevail and be reflected in the prerogative of the people to decide and call the shots on every major issue affecting the country.

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) defined democracy as: ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people’. This therefore basically means that the people’s voice and vote remain paramount at all times and determine their choices on all important and germane matters which define the shape and tenor of democracy in the country. This represents the crux and essence of democracy. For the people, democracy cannot function in any other way. MPs and Ministers are just representatives of the people. They can neither usurp the prerogatives of the people nor tamper with the fundamental anchors of our democracy. This above all includes such important matters as any amendments to the Constitution, the electoral system, the territorial integrity of the country, the lay values of the Republic or the fundamental and unalienable rights of people. The people’s vote and majority rule at the polls is and must remain the final arbiter in all matters relevant to democracy in the country.

Alliance carrot

After long drawn cogitations, the government proposed amendments to the electoral system released last week is true to form – botched, retrograde and smacks of déjà vu. It is simply a rehash and a permutation of the same cocktail of elements bandied about since 2014 which were robustly contested by the people and rejected through the debacle of the Labour-MMM alliance at the December 2014 general elections. Its key object is to introduce a dose of proportional representation in the electoral system and to compensate the 12 PR nominees by between 6 to 10 best loser seats nominated by the Party or alliance leaders to ‘re-establish the majority obtained by the winning party or party alliance over the other eligible parties or party alliances.’ Then, what is the logic of further increasing the already high number of MPs at public expense?

It is also obvious that the dose of PR serves as a carrot to the leader of the MMM (who seems to have received an advance copy) to bait him into a political alliance ahead of the general elections given his fixation and endless endeavours to introduce a dose of PR into our electoral system. This gambit seems to have backfired as the government reform proposals have been rejected by the leader of the MMM who presumably wants PR to shave the majority obtained by the outcome of the First Past the Post (FPTP) system of elections instead of maintaining or increasing it. Or is it part of a convoluted game of brinkmanship? Simulations of the government proposals carried out on the results of the past 11 general elections have shown that the majority obtained in some 7 of these elections would be increased. This can hardly be right or fair.

PR fixation

What is however galling is that the ensuing debate on the government electoral reform proposals has shown that the leadership of the MMM whose fixation with PR is notable and the Labour Party are still defending their decried electoral reform proposals containing a dose of PR which was the principle cause of their debacle at the December 2014 general elections. Some leaders will never learn. PR is anathema to the multitude, the more so in the light of enduring mess caused by the introduction of PR in the Rodrigues electoral system. Furthermore, most of the major democracies of the world such as the UK, the United States or India use the FPTP electoral system, full stop. What if PR were to prevail in Europe in the context of the present pervasive rise of populist and extremist parties? Instability would be rife.

More fundamentally, beyond the question of horse trading the required majority of three-quarters in the National Assembly of 69 MPs, a handful of 52 MPs cannot arrogate themselves the right in our democracy to decide on possibly irreversible changes to the electoral system, an increase in the number of MPs or the financing of political parties, all at public expense without first obtaining the approval of the people by referendum. This is a red line which should not be crossed. Such changes could be irreversible as it will be significantly more difficult to mobilize in an enlarged National Assembly the 61 MPs required to undo the contested changes. The larger the number of MPs, the more difficult it would be to obtain the required majority of MPs to reverse any decried decisions.

Such wanton tinkering with the Constitution or the electoral system is just not on. The cardinal rule must be that all proposed changes to our electoral system and the Constitution must necessarily have to be first formally approved by the people by referendum. Not to do so is to invite a scathing backlash.

Updated census figures

It must be also flagged that on 27 July 2012, the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) adopted the view ‘that the continued maintenance of the requirement of the mandatory classification of a candidate for general elections without the corresponding updated figures of community affiliation of the Mauritian population in general would appear to be arbitrary and in violation of article 25 of the Covenant’. It asked the state ‘to update the 1972 census with regard to party affiliation and to consider whether the community based electoral system is still necessary.’ The UNHRC message is clear as to what we have to do.

It must be highlighted that it was the ill advised 1982 Government’s decision to replace the phrase ‘the results of the latest published official census’ by ‘the results of the 1972 census’ in the Constitution which subsequently exposed the Best Loser System to litigation and censure by the Supreme Court and the United Nations Human Rights Committee. One of its key elements for computation having been hobbled, the Best Losers were as a consequence determined on the basis of outdated 1972 census figures which were rightly no longer deemed, as stipulated in the Constitution, ‘fair and adequate’.

Instead of setting right the blunder of their own making in1982 as spelled out by the UNHRC, the high priests of PR, using the UNHRC stance as a Trojan Horse,are now proposing to cure it with the introduction of a dose of PR in our electoral system. In essence, this means nominating PR MPs through the haphazard and unfair method of using party or alliance votes to nominate MPs from a closed ‘party list’ arbitrarily decided by the omnipotent party leader. The closed party list would obviously be the object of all sorts of lobbying. Voters would also vote for parties rather than for candidates on the basis of merit. There is also the danger of a muddled amalgam of community, ethnicity and religion which divides rather than cements the nation.

The government proposal to let the eligible party or alliance leaders to choose their Best Losers further heightens the overbearing grip of leaders over their parties. In contrast, in the Best Loser System (BLS), it is the Electoral Commission which determines the Best Losers on the basis of actual votes polled by each Best Loser in an independent manner in accordance with a transparent method of computation based on verifiable parameters. In short what is being proposed is to replace the independent and transparent to address the problem of communal underrepresentation by the arbitrary and the subjective. The BLS, whatever our personal take on it, seems in comparison a fairer system.

It should also be noted that the more the people who do not declare their community for the specific purpose of the BLS system, the higher will be the risk of understatement of communal representation.

Proportionality has been the big argument championed by the PR proponents. Democracy is anchored on the people’s free choice and vote and majority rule. When the majority of voters opt to elect candidate X as opposed to candidate Y despite having in Mauritius three votes and three choices to do so, they emphatically indicate that they do not want Y to represent them as an MP. All those rejected by the electorate in general elections also reflect the sovereign choice of the people. Past Prime Ministers and Party leaders have been notable casualties of the people’s choice.

Against such a backdrop why should candidates rejected by the electorate be nominated, as was the case in colonial times to water down the people’s democratic choice and majority, through the back door of PR on the basis of their ranking in a closed party list and the votes obtained generally by the party or alliance instead of their own? This is the more galling in a democracy as candidates rejected by the electorate are nominated through PR and closed Party lists as MPs against the people’s will and are paid from public funds. Such an approach flouts elementary principles of democracy. It has no leg to stand on.

The upshot is that some fundamental principles must be strictly followed when envisaging the serious business of Constitutional reform and the reform of the electoral system. Firstly, it is not a job for the dilettante or politicians with an axe to grind but that of seasoned and reputed international constitutional jurists. Secondly, reform must be done in a holistic manner rather than in a piecemeal manner. Thirdly, the electoral system must be trusted, simple to understand, and its outcome predictable by the electorate. PR hobbles predictability, bamboozles the voter and spawns instability. Fourthly, it is the people who are the final arbiter of such important changes and their formal approval must first be sought and obtained by referendum.

Enough of duds

Most importantly, Mauritius already has a significantly higher ratio of MPs to its population than that in major democracies such as the USA, UK, India or France. The ratio is 656,500 per MP for the European Union, 596,000 for the United States, 1,565,000 for India and 64,000 for Singapore whilst it is only 19,000 for Mauritius. 70 handsomely remunerated MPs is a maximum. The country has had enough of duds. The people are clamouring for real party democracy and a paradigm shift in the governance of parties by fielding competent and talented candidates to seek election as MPs. People want quality not quantity.

If we are to genuinely improve democracy in our country, there are much more important issues to be examined. The most important flaw of our electoral system flagged before is the wide and unfair disparity of voters across the 21 constituencies of Mauritius, the more so as this disparity evolves over time. Thus, as at 15 August 2018, 2 constituencies had more than 62,000 electors, 4 had between 50,000-60,000 electors, 9 constituencies had between 40,000-50,000 electors, 3 had between 30,000-40,000 electors whereas 3 including Rodrigues had between 20,000- 30,000 electors. The ratio of electors between the smallest constituencies (nos 2 and 3) to the largest constituencies (nos 5 and 14) is about 1:3. Yet, with the exception of Rodrigues, each constituency elects three MPs.

Such a grossly uneven distribution of electors is contrary to basic principles of democracy. Against such a backdrop how can politicians blinded by their dogged pursuit of power continue to be solely driven by PR? This iniquitous situation needs to be resolved at the earliest. On the basis of 923,316 electors and barring Rodrigues, a more equal distribution of voters would mean some 44,000 electors for each of the 20 constituencies on mainland Mauritius. We would probably need to have a smaller number of constituencies. In the absence of a more equal distribution of electors in all constituencies should we not envisage as an interim step to adjust after obtaining the people’s approval the number of elected MPs per constituency accordingly? We must also bear in mind that Rodrigues which is one of the smallest constituencies with 29,798 electors is administered by the Rodrigues National Assembly with a budget earmarked for this purpose.

The parochial political agendas of party leaders cannot supplant the prerogatives of the people to be the sole arbiter of all important changes to our democracy. They can only set our democracy back. Some, like Don Quixote, will continue their political wild goose chases. The real priorities of the country are socio-economic rather than political. It is time to cut loose from the futile and focus on what really matters for the people and our democracy.

* Published in print edition on 28 September 2018

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