Pressing down on Electoral Reform


By M.K.

Many countries in the world are currently focussing their attention on how to deal with a potential global economic crisis. This is no doubt a priority. There are signs that it will take time before the world starts rolling once again with the speed and momentum it had before the international economic crisis broke out in 2008.

On our part, we have no doubt also looked at this global economic concern. The budget speech was given in November last and the stewards of the economy are on the lookout for solutions in case things took a turn towards greater uncertainty in our main markets. All of this requires a state of readiness on our part to act and get the economy on and running again in the event we are hit in any major way by the unfolding international drama.

However, it is undeniable that a lot of energy has been going into electoral reform. This has been the case the more so as the government got weakened when the MSM left in the middle of last year. Professor Carcassonne and his colleagues have delivered in December last yet another blueprint for electoral reform. Stakeholders have been busy discussing whether it is apt to bring in the required reform. A lot, perhaps too much, of attention has been going in this direction. Why has it become imperative to act on this matter so urgently?

If we go back to the system that has prevailed since before independence (with a predominantly First Past the Post system coupled with social correctives for communal under-representation through what is called the Best Loser System), governments have been relatively stable. There have in fact been overwhelmingly (numerically) strong governments (like 60-0, 57-3) on occasion. Strong majorities in Parliament have imparted stability enough to the system of government. We have never been prone to instabilities such as in certain European countries where governments could barely function due to thin majorities. No government here has lost a vote of confidence. In other words, the historical perspective shows that, despite its weaknesses, the existing system has been extremely helpful towards the act of governing.

It is true that there have been times, such as at present, where an unstable majority has had the effect of making the normal system of checks and balances more difficult to reckon with. This, however, is not the end of the world. Laws can be modified when presented to Parliament in order to stultify any trivial opposition to otherwise well packaged legislations. This will be the case where the opposition would be tempted to vote abusively against a legislation which goes patently in the direction of defending the public interest. Substance assumes greater importance than form. This has to be constantly demonstrated when passing legislations calmly, dispassionately. It requires prior hard work to reconcile opposing interests before the projects are laid down before the House. Governments and civil servants are up to the level to attend to this kind of standard.

We find that our Parliament has produced a number of good products, holding the country together in progressive peace and stability since independence. Unlike what is happening these days in the Middle East dictatorships, our governments have rarely assumed absolute powers to do things according to their own whims and caprices. Our governments of all hues and colours have preserved the fundamental principles of democratic rule, such as maintaining law and order, keeping up the rule-of-law environment intact, enacting legislations on time to enable business to expand its horizons and conferring equality of opportunity in the spirit of governance even before enacting specific legislation to this effect. The results are here for everyone to see and there is little risk that we might fall into the chaotic conditions in which unstable governments (as in Greece, Italy, etc.) or the dictatorships (Middle East) are operating.

The main flaw in democratic representation in our case has come from the fact that there has been a persistent social fracture in the voting pattern, with the majority of the main ethnic group voting on one side and the majority of the minority groups voting on the other side, except where suitable coalitions have been formed among the major parties to bring together the two sides. For the past nearly 5 decades, the political leadership has hardly succeeded to break this dichotomy. Voters have grouped together en masse on either side of the divide despite the fact that the country’s overall agenda has been carried forward equitably, irrespective of the governments in place.

It may be said that the current pressure for electoral reform is springing not from the fact that governments of different hues and colours have failed to deliver on the broad parameters. It comes from the fact that all alternative permutations and combinations of major political parties have been tried over time and leaders of political parties are finding it difficult to identify and get on with yet another partner, from the existing lot, who will help secure a win at the next polls. There has been taking place a huge amount of haggling among the parties on the terms and conditions for them to get together to face voters.

Not even Professor Carcassonne and colleagues have been able to give a reform which will enable a single party to transcend the voting pattern that has prevailed since independence. They have given a formula (along with an undefined measure of recasting of constituencies along single member representation per constituency) whereby it is political parties which, by their party list, are expected to give the reassurance of adequate communal representation. This is expected to do away with the Best Loser System that has cautioned adequate communal representation since independence.

Moreover the outcome of elections will be determined solely on the basis of proportions of total votes cast in favour of each party. This amounts to a full-fledged proportional representation system. However, they are right about the single constituencies needing to be recast in view of the fact that some of the constituencies today throw up the same number of representatives to the Assembly as other constituencies twice or even more than twice their size in terms of number of voters. This mathematical aberration has gone against the sacrosanct one-man-one vote notion. In any event, their proposals will not break the social barriers that have denied the emergence of strongly-supported new parties across-the-board with fresh ideas on how alternatively to do the business of governing the country with greater competence.

Change is one of the most difficult things in life. Political parties that have thrived on a political clientelism will not easily give up a system that has given them power by switching from one coalition to another. Nor will they undertake an electoral reform that will allow the political adversary to walk away with all the spoils. They will want to consolidate their bastions to go and win singly, if possible. They will caution their traditional voters that it is they and they alone who will protect their interests. That will keep the largely communal vote bank intact. It is the inability to make a breakthrough into this bottleneck, when confronted with the prospect of not being able to secure a comfortable majority at the next polls, which explains the different contortions we are seeing today at the level of individual political parties.

Is it a worthwhile game? Yes, it is, if it ends up thawing out eventually the specific communal caution on which different governments have been formed in the past. This will take time. Various advisers on electoral reform have been realistic enough to recognize the fact. Refining the platform can go on and the country will gain in the process by putting meritocracy and credible succession plans at a higher level in the agenda at the level of individual political parties. What we really need however is that the work of the country needs to be executed with the highest efficiency. This will happen so long voters hold governments on a tight leash to perform rather than to seek power for the sake of power. We have a good enough record on this count and we should concentrate rather on this than on parochial interests that may be dear to individual political parties.

* Published in print edition on 13 January 2012

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