Who is setting the agenda?
On Wednesday last, the Leader of the MMM asked his deputy, Alan Ganoo, to call off the meeting he was due to have that day with the Prime Minister on the subject of electoral reform. This was in reaction to a statement made on an earlier occasion by the Prime Minister to the effect that he was not in a hurry to deal with the matter, at least not this year.
The PM considers that it will require prior deep thinking on the consequences a fundamental change of the sort may have before taking the leap.
The Prime Minister has stated that he tended to agree with the popular view that the numbers of deputies proposed by the Leader of the MMM (62+20 +8) was too much. He holds the view that the numbers proposed under proportional representation (PR), that is 20, would be too many. He has also stated not having sufficient clarity on the 8 deputies who, according to the MMM leader, would be chosen, post-election, at the discretion of party leaders to give comprehensive representation in the Assembly to all the components of the population. According to him, this process was not transparent enough and did not, on the face of it, appear to be fit to be adopted in a move involving Constitutional change.
It will be recalled that it is the MMM that has been asking for ‘electoral reform’ all this time even though this matter has been up for consideration in Labour’s program as well. The MMM, as we noted earlier on, is keen to get proportional representation of some sort introduced into the voting system. While, in general, an element of PR would achieve some amount of fairness by correcting weird outcomes like 60-0 or 57-3, it is not without risks.
A corrected version of First Past the Post (FPTP) outcomes by some amount of PR would help by sending out to the Assembly a stronger opposition team, capable of containing excesses on the part of an unduly strong government side. This would help keep the government within bounds. To that extent, it is not a bad thing.
On the other hand, depending on the formula employed and the numbers finally qualifying under the PR, there could be a risk of instability in the House. The PR could be used to severely trim down a party’s effective majority and, where the difference is too marginal between the two main blocs, this is material for coups to be staged for upsetting the FPTP outcome. If not now, then later as the government’s goodwill fritters out due to incumbency.
In any event, whether in government or in opposition, the MMM stands to lose nothing once a PR is introduced in the system. With PR, it will comfort itself by securing a larger number of seats than it usually obtains under the FPTP. It will be the same thing if it were to add up more to its ranks from the “discretionary” 8 additional members it has proposed, even if that were reduced to 4 in a final compromise. All of this will reinforce, not reduce, its representation in the House. This explains why it has been so forceful in the initiative to introduce PR in the system.
The MMM has also taken the precaution to have a fallback position. If it did not secure the ‘electoral reform’ it has been asking for, it will rally back with the MSM and thrive by dividing up the votes that would have otherwise gone to Labour. With the PR it could afford to go it alone, leaving Labour and the MSM to tear apart their traditional vote bank. The risk is a calculated one.
The question before political parties is whether they can govern unless they remain ‘in control’ of a comfortable majority in the House. If this ‘control’ is lost at any time for one reason or other, the power vacuum will emerge all at once. It will shake the entire structure top-down. There will be a shift and this could result in a permanent takeover of ‘control’.
All of this electoral reform that has come on the table is not a simple matter for theoreticians to juggle with. It is not a mere mathematical setup or a lawyers’ hunting ground. It concerns the stability and future of the people of this country. There is a fundamental long term concern needing to be addressed.
If it ends up yielding instability, the only way to correct it is by having recourse to Constitutional amendment. That can be carried out provided one has a specified majority in the House. It is not evident that one can do reverse engineering in case it misfires unless a party commands the specific majority at the time problems bristle up.
The stakes of political parties and, more especially, that of the population, are high. That is why it is important not to act under impulse or in view of short term predicaments. Not much harm is done if local council elections do not yield the expected outcomes across the board. This can be reversed later. But general elections can have overturning impacts. They have a direct bearing on the long term. This is why one needs to have all the cards in one’s hands, very much in the style in which the Leader of the MMM is conducting negotiations on electoral reform. He has nothing to lose, therefore all to gain.