Talk of electoral reform began after the MSM broke away from the government. This happened around the middle of 2011. People suspected that, since the issue had been lying dormant at the level of government programme so far, there was something fishy about it coming up all of a sudden. It was believed that this was simply a cover-up for the MMM to come together with Labour, now that the MSM’s departure from the government had weakened the government’s majority in the House.
In other words, it was believed that a reconfiguration of the political landscape against the background of electoral reform was what politicians were really seeking.
This was without reckoning with the MMM’s objective to secure a measure of proportional representation as a way of obtaining a larger share of seats in the Assembly. Under the existing electoral system which puts a premium on the First Past the Post (FPTP), opposition parties had often been under-represented in terms of seats obtained in relation to the percentage of votes they had secured in the election. In order to address this inequity, reports had been commissioned in the past, the last one being the Sachs Report, in order to get to a better balance among parties. The recommendations of such reports or modified versions thereof had however never been implemented.
Whatever may have been the motivations for addressing the issue of electoral reform this time, it was worthwhile to seek a better reflection of the voting pattern as among the political parties. This would be basically correcting the intrinsic weakness of an electoral system that had in the past thrown up governments with lopsided majorities in relation to the votes cast in their favour. In other words, it was thought the FPTP results needed to be moderated by a dose of proportional representation to bring about a fairer reflection of votes cast towards the composition of the House.
With this expectation as a point of departure, Professor Carcassonne and colleagues were commissioned late last year to come up with proposals for electoral reform in the wake of the discussions which had begun on the subject between Labour and the MMM. Two points were added for the commissioners to attend to: the recommended system should ensure an inclusive representation of all the distinct components of the nation; it should also go towards achieving a stronger representation of women in Parliament.
Their report was accordingly submitted early December 2011. It main recommendation was centred upon integral proportional representation as the main pillar of Parliamentary deputation. Its other recommendation was the adoption of closed party lists that would determine, amongst others, inclusive representation of the population. It advocated a rearrangement of existing constituencies, some of which would elect up to 7 representatives to the House.
In the wake of the Carcassonne Report, former Minister of Finance Rama Sithanen stepped in as he was of the view that the Report did not reflect the realities of the Mauritian set-up with a view to making an alternative proposal. One of the views set out in the Sithanen report is that the present 62 FPTP election of members should be maintained as the mainstay of the system to guarantee the emergence of stable governments. This is to be supplemented by the designation of 20 more members by a system of proportional representation based on the number of votes cast in favour of unelected candidates, this forming the basis for allocating 20 additional seats in the Assembly on a proportional basis to each political party. A threshold of 10% of national votes cast is laid down for a party to be eligible for proportional representation under this system or 5% if the party has won 3 seats under the FPTP. Mr Sithanen has stated that there is incompatibility between a PR system and the existing Best Loser System (BLS). In other words, adopting the PR will amount to abandoning the BLS.
Members of the Muslim community in particular have stated their opposition to elimination of the BLS. Mr Sithanen has claimed on the basis of actual election results that four-fifths of Muslim representatives in Parliament have been elected under the FPTP system so that the BLS has actually made very little difference to Muslim representation in Parliament. Mr Bérenger has been quick to take up a stand to defend the maintenance of the BLS. Labour’s leader has stated that he has never mentioned having been in favour of doing away with the BLS. The entire debate has become centred upon whether the BLS will be given up to the detriment of fair and adequate minority representation.
The question of electoral reform began thus as a quest for a more equitable system of Parliamentary representation based on the votes secured by individual parties. It has now taken on a highly ethnic colouring. Muslims (and probably other minorities as well seeking a Constitutional guarantee that they will always be adequately represented in Parliament) are not happy to abandon their acquired right simply by trusting party leaders under the proposed PR system to the effect that the party lists will always be inclusive enough to give them at least the numbers of representatives the BLS guarantees them in the Constitution. To our knowledge, no one will give up for an acquired right simply for the beauty of a proposed system lying in the discretionary decisions of party leaders. Those who have participated in elections on the basis of a pure FPTP system allied with the BLS since independence will no doubt think likewise. Why will they give up something which they believe has lived up to their expectations?
One thing that all this talk about electoral reform has done is to unsettle an existing balance about the political system. This system, essentially based on the FPTP, is possibly not reckoning with a change of mindset that might have taken place in the population since the Best Loser System was first adopted decades ago. But it has been free of many stigmas that popular voting has been criticized for in quite a few countries. For example, our system has not been tainted with wide-scale fraudulent practices which are seen in some other countries. Our Electoral Commission is credible enough to be called upon to supervise the running of elections in certain hotspots in other parts of the world. This goes to our credit. For all practical purposes, the posturing adopted by different parties seems to show that they may have to go back to square one since no one wants to give up a potentially winning position, given the realities of Mauritian society, to get to a fairer system of representation of political parties.
The process of electoral reform should have nevertheless addressed certain other critical issues beside fair representation at the level of Parliament. One which occurs immediately to mind is the question of party financing. We ought to have looked at it closely enough so as to be sure that financing of electoral campaigns of distinct parties by certain vested economic interests does not end up capturing the apparatus of State, bending decisions in favour of the financiers to the detriment of all. Parameters could also have been considered as to who should manage the war chests accumulated through donations to political parties and how to keep them under authoritative scrutiny. Another issue that could have been taken up was the idea of succession planning within parties. The concern here is that parties should be built up increasingly around a clear functional transparency. This is not always the case.
Is this yet another case of a missed opportunity to bring about a good electoral reform looking inside political parties but also outside them to secure fair representation? It looks like it, now that the debate has shifted as to whether BLS should or should not be preserved and that party lists in the hands of party leaders can result in arbitrary and not necessarily comprehensive representation of the different components of the population. We have travelled in this direction a number of times. This may have been another false dawn in electoral reform. The overlaps have proved to be irreconcilable so far because no one wants to throw away his baby with the bathwater. Many feel, and rightly so, that experimenting on structures that have given good results in the management of the country so far may be a bit too risky even though it cannot be denied that one has to grow out of set patterns. This risk is usually taken when it is clear that the rewards will definitely be larger than the risks. Not yet so, it seems.
* Published in print edition on 3 February 2012