At the Risk of Throwing Yourself Overboard



The United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) in its recent pronouncement in the case brought before it by Rezistans ek Alternativ has made certain specific remarks. It has stated that it is not right to reject candidates standing for elections for reason only that they fail to specify the “community” to which they belong.

This is contrary to Article 25(b) of the UN Covenant. It has referred to the outdatedness of the 1972 population census on which best losers are designated from among unreturned candidates, being the basis of “community” classification for the purposes of the Best Loser System (BLS). It has not cast any adverse opinion on the BLS per se.

The Leader of the Opposition has come out this week with a new proposal for electoral reform in the wake of the tumult occasioned by the UNHRC’s pronouncement. He has proposed that in addition to the 62 candidates elected by the First Past the Post System (FPTP) and 8 BLS, 20 more members be elected to the Assembly under the proportional representation system (PR). In other words, the number of members of the Assembly be increased to 90, a staggeringly huge number.

It should be clear that Paul Bérenger is seeking to obtain the best deal for his party. The trump card for the MMM is PR. It is the sole element on which it can rely to turn an electoral outcome in its favour, or to best ensure a better parliamentary representation of the MMM. The MMM leader cannot be blamed for doing his best to win. Political parties are involved in the game of winning at elections and it is only legitimate that he should put as much on his side as possible to produce that outcome.

As a general principle, the PR can be looked at as a mechanism for achieving a greater amount of fairness in the number of seats going to different parties according to the proportion of total votes they secure in an election. Past elections have thrown up lopsided majorities in the Assembly on the basis of the FPTP. It is said that PR will rectify such outcomes. In that sense, a PR being partly a surrogate for an inclusive BLS in an alternative electoral system, might give an element of greater fairness to elections than at present.

However, questions arise. The first of these is whether the electoral outcome of such a system will be able to yield stable and properly functioning governments. In an environment like Mauritius, a thin majority of a couple of MLAs can prove to be quite unsettling in the conduct of government business. Only a few percentage points of the votes cast have separated the winners from the losers in recent past elections, so that minor swings can easily tilt outcomes to one side or the other in a PR system. That will be the case once a PR system is known to be actually in place.

Second, it has to be considered whether the luxury of enhanced fairness through a PR system can be afforded against the threat of perpetual instability in the act of governing. Would it therefore be preferable to live with the rough and ready, though not entirely fair, outcomes of a pure FPTP rather than allow ungovernable situations to emerge under a PR system? Countries which have experimented with PR have often had to face unstable governments, the more so when the number of representatives eligible to be taken in under the PR is large compared with the number elected under the FPTP. It may be noted that the maximum 8 allowed under the prevailing BLS has not inflicted instability in a House of 62 directly elected under the FPTP in our case. The more you move from 8 to 28, as proposed by the MMM leader, under one form or other of indirect representation, the greater the risk of instability.

Third, do we have a track record of how a heavily dosed PR system such as the one that the MMM Leader has proposed, will work out in practice, given the specificities of the Mauritian voting pattern? We don’t. We will therefore be experimenting into the unknown whereas we are certain that however unfair the outcomes of FPTP along with BLS have been on occasion, government business has not been disrupted in say, the past three elections. The government side has had a free hand to design and implement its policy.

It may well look like an incumbent government is not poised to win at the next elections. Incumbency has usually carried this kind of uncertainty. But one can overturn situations to one’s favour by doing the job for which voters have sent a party to govern. Consider the Hobson’s choice in which India’s UPA government was placed till now by its unpredictable minority ally, the Trinamool Congress, which placed the government into a non-choice between risking its swift political collapse and not taking policy decisions which matter. Now that the UPA has cut the Gordian’s knot by rejecting its ally’s constant blackmail and taken to reforming the economy, it may turn its liability as an incumbent into a significant asset compared with its perceived weakness as a government so far and thus open the road for bold policy decisions for the good of the country and the party.

Factors like this go beyond considerations of personal security. They transcend immediate considerations and privilege instead the longer term. They do not bring to bear on the need for immediate so-called historical legacies. They coldly look into the future by not espousing any system whatsoever that has the potential to permanently incapacitate both the country and the party from following a balanced agenda in favour of the majority of the people. Going for nominal and temporary advantages carries permanent costs.

It need be recalled that, when considering reform of the electoral system, one should not only admit a small enough dose of PR but ensure also that whatever it is, it does not change under any circumstances the FPTP outcome and certainly not to the point of shifting the reins of power. Besides, there are other considerations to keep in mind such as the blatant unfairness in that while all constituencies, barring Rodrigues, send three elected representatives to the Assembly, the voters in some of them far outnumber those in others. Unless you take out this unfairness, what’s the point of going all the hog as regards PR? Surely, the PR would have come earlier but factors such as the size of distinct constituencies have had a part to play towards giving stability in terms of representativeness of the different components of the social composition by the system currently in force. A true reform should also embrace the financing of political parties rather than looking only towards favourable poll results. Last, but not least, the people should have a clear say in all that will be decided regarding the rules of voting or any proposed changes therein.

* Published in print edition on 28 September 2012

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