The People should have their Say First and Foremost
Paul Bérenger was looking for an opportunity to exit the alliance he entered into with the MSM barely three months ago. It would appear that the clumsy MSM member Shawkatally Soodhun and his colleague Maya Hanoomanjee from the same party gave him the golden pretext to put the latest coalition on hold.
He states having gone into “a mode of reflexion” over a period of two weeks about the alliance and has, in the same breath, conceded that his party’s deputy leader has been in conversation with Labour about “electoral reform” and the idea of a second Republic, with his consent. At the end of the day, the only thing he appears to have achieved at this juncture is to cause SAJ to vacate State House.
This turn of events was not unforeseeable. It seems that SAJ stepped down from the presidency in March to become the leader of the newly formed MMM-MSM alliance on certain understandings. The understandings were that SAJ would successfully destabilize the Labour government by inducing the defection of some of its members. This did not happen. It was also expected that the new political force would mobilize a large enough crowd for its 1st May rally to regain sufficient dynamics of its own and successfully challenge the government towards a re-composition of the power structure. The rally turned out to be a damp squib in this regard. Bérenger was therefore unimpressed by his newly acquired partner on both counts. He therefore played the game of going into “a mode of reflexion”.
Out of this apparent failure to bring the MMM-MSM alliance to change the political landscape, within this brief span of time, a new chapter has suddenly emerged in the public. It emanates largely from the quarters of the MMM, as if public sentiment was being subtly gauged as to the acceptability or otherwise of new political arrangements being evoked after the likely breakup of the virtual MMM-MSM alliance.
A lot of half statements have been coming out in public recently in the wake of this potential breakup, largely from the MMM leader. He has stated having reached uniformity of views between the MMM and Labour, regarding an “electoral reform” process. This reform apparently embraces a dose of proportional representation (PR), maintenance of the First Past the Post system and a diluted version of the Best Loser System currently in place. It seems that the two parties also agree on a floor threshold of 7.5% of total votes cast for a political party’s eligibility to have representation in Parliament under the PR system.
Another chapter has surreptitiously crept into the debate. It concerns what has been termed as the “Second Republic”, the first one having been established in the form we know it today as from 1992. In other words, the two parties in discussion (Labour and MMM) have been contemplating a re-definition of the powers of the President and the Prime Minister under the proposed new construct. It would appear from what has filtered down that they are contemplating a President having executive powers, notably having the power to go for the dissolution of the Assembly and keeping certain key parastatal bodies and public departments exclusively under the President’s control rather than under the Prime Minister’s. The President would also preside over specific Cabinet meetings in lieu of the Prime Minister. Thus, certain portfolios would remain vested in the President and not in the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister would be in charge of executing the business of the National Assembly in other respects, subject to the specific superseding powers to be exercised by the President. No statement has been made as to whether a President having such executive powers would have to be directly elected or not. From the information that has flowed out, the understanding is that the power sharing among the two major political power holders will be such as to make the Prime Minister’s powers subsidiary to those of the President. It is clear that a system would prove to be unworkable in practice if any one of the top incumbents of political power did not have the power to overrule the other one; that power is drawn from a parliamentary majority. There has been no explicit statement on the part of Labour about the goings-on in the political discussions as are being stated from the MMM side.
One reading of the emerging situation being painted out is that the leaders of the two political parties are apparently reaching a conclusion among themselves on changing the electoral system while simultaneously agreeing on the sharing out of political powers and changing Constitutional provisions to these effects. It is not quite clear whether, if that is actually the case, they plan to raise a three-quarter voting majority in the House from the Assembly’s current constituency, picking up votes enough from the two sides, to make Constitutional amendments towards the stated objectives.
In the latter case, an important question of principle arises. In a self-respecting democracy, such sweeping changes would be debated not solely as it pleases the Assembly. The public interest demands that it be discussed first and foremost, especially the matter of the sharing-out of powers between the President and the Prime Minister, by putting out proposals in this regard to the public. The principle requires that voters should be exposed at length to the pros and cons of the debate and that such an important issue involving Constitutional amendment should not be disposed of without obtaining an informed sanction through an election. It needs be borne in mind that whatever structure will come out will amount to a fundamental change in the manner in which the country has been governed with sufficient overall stability during the past four decades from independence.
If voters are confident at the election that the new political project will deliver the goods all the same, now and for posterity, when structural power shifts can potentially take place, well and good. They should be given the principled chance to vote for the change in full awareness of the decision they are to take to divide powers of political decision-making the way politicians are proposing that it were better to do. The consequences of the proposed crucial changes need to be weighed in carefully by the voting public not only for the present but taking into account likely future configurations of the political scenario as well. It is important to make sure that those who will occupy key positions in the country’s Constitutional setup are not tempted at any future time to run the show without giving due consideration to objections there may be to any drastic changes they might usher in without questioning by anyone whomsoever.
* Published in print edition on 27 July 2012