The Prime Minister announced after his return from London that he was of the view that the Best Loser System (BLS) was no longer needed in the form in which it has been set out in the Constitution and in electoral provisions. He had mentioned his stand on this matter earlier; he is now confirming his view in the context of the recent decision of the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) in the case brought before it by Resistans ek Alternativ.
In coming to its conclusion, the UNHRC has asked whether it was still considered relevant to have candidates declare their communal belonging in order to stand for election. The UN body also drew attention to the fact that population census along the communal segmentation lines laid down in the Constitution had not been brought up to date since 1972.
This raised therefore the thorny question of causing a similar census to be carried out now, with all the attendant risks of bringing to the fore community-based fragmentation of the population at this stage and the risk of awakening sleeping dragons under this chapter. It is a big risk which may go into unexpected and undesirable directions. One way of dealing with this risk is not to carry out an updated census. That however would fail to respond to the UNHRC’s observation on the out-datedness of the population statistics.
In such a case, the question arises as to how to carry on with the BLS (as proposed by the Leader of the MMM) which is supported by the community factor without fulfilling the census update? An easy way out would be to give up the BLS, as the question of community appurtenance through a new census would then not be at issue. This could have been one of the factors persuading the Labour leader to abandon the BLS, quite apart from a personal conviction he may be holding that one ought to transcend community barriers to make social progress.
There is an assumption that, if asked by way of a referendum, the majority of the population would vote in favour of non-communal fracturing of the population, because of changed mindsets, satisfying electoral outcomes so far without the BLS input, modernity, etc. This assumption has not been tested. Perceptions could well change if explanations are given out as to how well overall social balance and fair representation will nevertheless be achieved in a system without BLS as we know it or by integrating it in a better adapted framework. Work needs to be done to this effect. One should not therefore jump to conclusions too hastily about changed mindsets of the people. There is a need rather to do the convincing.
The majority community and some of the key other communities will appreciate things better if the stakes are explained to them clearly before taking a referendum on the subject of the BLS, if necessary. It is more important to explain and understand fully contemplated changes in such important matters than get into private understandings at the level of political parties on how to alter the platform in the pursuit of other undisclosed political objectives, such as alliances.
Our country has not been fully well governed, true. Things could have been done better. But one can do the repairs so long the levers of power are still in your hands, not by going out into adventures that can leave you eventually with nothing in your hands. We have recently seen how unreliable and overturning some of our politicians can be; you cannot just take it that their word is their bond.
The effect of permanent shifts of power in the wrong hands has crippled countries that have failed on nearly all fronts, social and economic. Examples of such countries which have prioritized seeking of power in view of short term and self-seeking advantages or well-meaning but ill-defined goals in terms of concrete finalities sought to be achieved for the nation as a whole, are not difficult to find in our region, notably in Africa. Some of them like Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa got back on their feet after struggling with opposing forces for long but others like Congo and Zimbabwe are still reeling on their feet for having paid scant attention to long term stability of their governance structure. Lessons must be learnt and frail governing majorities should not be severely stress-tested, lest they break down for good to the detriment of all.
Political parties in pursuit of their own goals often miss the tree for the woods. Consider the current issue of electoral reform. Each one of the three major parties is seeking to protect itself by advocating what best suits it in the quest for power.
The MMM for example wants to walk away with a dose of proportional representation which will sooner or later thrust it in power without having to get into an alliance, by shifting the outcome of the prevailing First Past the Post System (FPPS). This happened in Rodrigues recently. Once this happens, the MMM can then wield power without the support of any allies and do what the PMSD of 1967 failed to achieve. To get to that, it looks like it may be prepared to toe the line recently thrown up by the Labour leader by even abandoning its watered-down insistence on getting the BLS in a reduced form. It is so keen on the PR that it has now started talking of adopting some “flexibility” towards ‘internalising’ the BLS in the electoral reform with PR. To this end, the MMM has been putting on offer its numerical strength in the Assembly to “help” Labour secure the three-quarters amending majority. Or, is it helping itself rather?
The MSM is not keen on electoral reform as a priority, not really because its political philosophy accords with the prevailing BLS jointly with the FPPS. This party which does not effectively command a hard core of non-floating supporters has been able to successfully put itself in the role of ‘kingmaker’ in past elections, if not being the ‘king’ actually. It is therefore not keen to let go of a system in which it fits up neatly. Moreover, concessions that might be granted to the MMM in the shape of PR in the name of fairer representation, could well have the effect of eliminating the MSM from the scene altogether if the qualifying threshold for representation was set at a fairly high level, say 10%. In which case, the MMM would eventually be confronting Labour single-handedly with the added advantage of a PR in the system, after eliminating the MSM from the scene.
As for Labour, gain from adopting a PR system without the BLS, as is being advocated currently by its leader, will help tackle the communal issue that the UNHRC has thrown up into the arms of the government. This is where it might be keen to secure the MMM’s support for Constitutional amendment as part of a private arrangement between the two parties. In the process, it may agree to the MMM’s quest for PR at all cost if only to avert the UNHCR predicament of running into a new census of the population. There is a risk that by going too fast along this lane, Labour might risk alienating part of the base that has voted it to power on the understanding that the BLS was here to stay. The paradox of the whole situation is that the action of Resistans ek Alternativ is helping the MMM to get to its goal of getting to its final objective of PR from Labour, whereas Resistans ek Alternativ and the MMM are currently attacking each other on the public stage.
There are bigger considerations at stake for the future stability of the country’s power structure. Too hasty a decision can break the entire architecture. Too easy a solution can take away political power for good. So, the question is: what, short of eliminating the existing combined effects of the BLS and the FPPS, can meet the objection raised by the UNHCR to our existing community-based parameters?
Certainly not, a new chequered census that will raise more questions than bring answers. Certainly not, denying a person the right to appear as candidate for an election without having to decline his/her community, as currently prescribed in the Constitution. Certainly yes, by picking up unreturned candidates and/or free citizens on merits by integrating the BLS into a publicly pre-announced binding PR system to ensure a fair representation of all but at the same time fully respectful of the FPPS outcomes. This BLS-incorporating PR has to be convincingly proved not to be capable of overturning the FPPS outcome from the elections.
If the attempt so made by the government to address the issues raised by the UNHRC does not get through in the existing setup for want of the necessary support, the government has a good explanation to offer to the UNHRC as to its intent and efforts made to get things corrected. The best thing is not to invite change that can destroy for good an edifice which rests on a frail but proven balancing of electoral outcomes. No party caring for its future will take a risk to alienate its essential support base in the population or hurt the mechanism through which it has attained to power, no matter how pressing other demands upon it could be. It will never admit a PR system that has the potential to undo an electoral outcome, especially one that it will not be easy to change once if it is found to be yielding the wrong outcomes. One has to ponder deeply before bringing in any changes in the shape of PR.
* Published in print edition on 21 September 2012