The Politics of Electoral Reform

When it comes to political reform, it is the government that sets the agenda. Not the Opposition. Yet we are being given the impression that the Opposition wants to dictate to the government that it should take up the matter without wasting more time. MMM members have been using an alleged delay on the government side in the publication of a white paper on electoral reform to express their dissatisfaction at the lack of progress in the matter. This is also the very view of the matter that some private media are repeatedly projecting in public. The pressure is on from these quarters for the government to come up with a proposal on electoral reform. 

The government has two years before the next elections. It can take the time it needs if it has to come up with a sound proposal that makes sense not for bringing in changes that are expedient and convenient to the Opposition. It has to consider a much broader picture than equating electoral reform simply with an increase in the number of elected members by introducing a dose of proportional representation (PR) or otherwise. There is already a supernumerary situation in the Assembly. It may not be advisable to go in this direction.

It is true that the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) has suggested, after considering the case put before it by Resistans ek Alternativ, a political party members of which were denied the right to stand for elections unless they declined on the electoral form the ‘community’ to which they belong, that Mauritius should review the situation, given the fact that the Best Loser System rests upon a population census dating as far back as 1972. It has given us a time period to report back on action being taken. This situation has triggered an agenda for electoral reform. Constitutional amendments in this regard cannot be done without canvassing the absolute majority in the House. It is the context in which the MMM and Labour embarked on their so-called ‘Koz-kozé’ with a view not only to carry out the electoral reform but also to join in coalition.

Both Labour and the MMM are cautious to broach the subject in view of the separate objectives they are pursuing in their quest for alliance along with ‘electoral reform’. Labour is hesitating to take the plunge, which explains why the MMM leader and the associated media are pressing on for an electoral reform with PR. The latter believe that once the die is cast, once both parties have voted in favour of PR (“bonne réforme électorale”), all options will be open. If the PR system gives the MMM the assurance that it can now win the elections without having to join in any coalition, it can go it alone, triggering a three-cornered fight. With PR, the MMM stands a better chance of forming a government on its own strength alone in the event of a three-cornered fight than under the existing First Past the Post (FPTP) system. It is not difficult for the Labour leader to realize that all that the MMM has been attempting so far by provoking the government into an ‘electoral reform’ is to consolidate its chances of winning, preferably by going alone. The decision handed down by the UNHRC is the supreme pretext for making the government go in the direction the MMM favours. It is not for supporting our compliance with an international body’s recommendations.

The danger one is running into in the given scenario is to introduce a serious element of instability in political administration. Thus, once the threshold of an appropriate reform is crossed, it will become well nigh impossible to restore the more stable ex ante situation. That will require canvassing a sufficient number of votes in the House to overturn a decision that would have by then become a permanent thorn in the flesh, shifting the levers of power into the hands of the conservative economic elite and for good. Instability could creep in to maintain that power by throwing up one group of the population against the other. This has happened in the past but luckily for Mauritius, the tinderbox was kept under control.

There may be a temptation to undo the constructive work done so far by what is known as the FPTP system in terms of economic, social and political stability. This is why the consideration of a dose of proportional representation to smooth out anomalous electoral outcomes of the FPTP, as have materialized on a few occasions in the past, is apparently contemplated. But strong governments like some which the FPTP has thrown up in the past – not necessarily the 60-0s or the 57-3s — not only reflect that there could be a huge sway in public opinion one way or the other; they are also the ones which can achieve a lot in terms of realization of government programs. On the other hand, a much higher level of risk would attach to governments and oppositions having very close numbers of elected members during a poll, such as under a PR system.

It is imperative that we avoid getting into irreversible situations which will bring about a highly volatile situation in the country. It is also necessary and essential that we don’t come to a point where too much power is centralised in a single or few hands. There is a case however for electoral reform from other more important perspectives than that of simply increasing the number of representatives through a PR system. For example, it is very important to sanitize the way power is shared and exercised. Thus, electoral reform could address the issue of making political parties more democratic in their internal functioning and decision-making processes. It could also address another sore point, notably control over party finances and the urgent need to weed out for good the root of corruption of political parties through corporate financing of political parties. The disparate number of voters forming part of distinct constituencies need to be rationalized to a more acceptable level. An electoral reform cannot be used to accommodate private pursuits; it should be seen to be in the interest of the country as a whole and not be made to suit conjunctural situations on the political scene.

* Published in print edition on 23 August 2013

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