Balancing Act

In his ‘Modernising the Electoral System’ proposals for elections reform, which he made public this week for popular consultation, Dr Navin Ramgoolam seems to have achieved a balance between the various objectives and requirements of our electoral system, smoothed out some of its imperfections and reached a degree of convergence with views and expectations of other parties and stakeholders.

The document indeed presents a careful – and clever – balancing act which abstains from unruffling certain susceptibilities in our small but complex plural society. That is why his “firm proposals” with respect to issues on which there is already broad agreement, and the other options which he has laid down for further debate as regards issues which do not command a broad consensus yet, have been generally welcomed by most stakeholders.

As far as the latter issues are concerned, his government has thus chosen not to revisit our electoral boundaries as that, he said, would “create more problems than it solves” – although it recognizes the unfairly unequal weight of votes across the 21 constituencies of Mauritius, given the existing discrepancies between constituency size and the number of votes per constituency. Population census will also not be updated, which would have been necessary for operationalising the Best Loser System. This can only earn him the support of those who have been campaigning against the obligation of candidates having to declare their ethnic origin for election purposes, besides answering the legal challenges to that constitutional provision. (One wonders though whether that obligation made one a lesser Mauritian!).

The Best Loser System will however not be abolished, it will instead be subsumed into a new dispensation, with the introduction into the system of 16 additional proportional representation seats that will complement the present 62 First Past the Post seats. This will effectively augment the possibility of better representation of minority sections of the population from the current 8 Best Loser seats. It will also make room for an improved women’s representation in Parliament; hopefully, this will prove to be a welcome change from what we obtain at times in Parliament. This enhanced minority representation would thus explain why the ardent supporters of the Best Loser system have toned down their opposition and are now choosing to « join the majority ».

The introduction of a dose of Proportional Representation, which is a significant departure from the policy espoused by the earlier generation of Labour Party leaders, has also met with agreement from the Opposition Leader. He has been canvassing this for a number of years, following the successive failures of his party to obtain a fair if not better representation in Parliament due to the FPTP system. This new dispensation, by lowering the disproportionality of the FPTP, will however benefit both major parties – Labour and MMM – should either be voted out of power post reform by ensuring a fairer balance between the share of votes they would have polled and the share of seats obtained. It’s a guarantee that both parties would agree to go for – just as well as the 10% threshold that has been provided for to shut out “factionalism” and “ethnically based parties” from Parliament. That threshold will also serve the other, tacit purpose of reducing the bargaining power of the piggybackers, which may not be a bad idea altogether given their relatively insignificant electoral weightage, and neutralizing their attempt they seem inclined to make from time to time, that is to punch way above their weight.

However, it is to be noted that the result of these measures, if implemented, will effectively be an enhanced bipolarization of political representation. At the same time, though, it is not possible to predict with certainty what the power equation will be post reform.

We have said in earlier articles that there is a case for electoral reform from other more important perspectives as well than that of simply increasing the number of representatives through a PR system. For example, electoral reform could address the issue of making political parties more democratic in their internal functioning and decision-making processes. Electoral reform 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 which corporate financing gives rise to. Another important point is the disparate number of voters forming part of distinct constituencies: this needs to be rationalized to a more acceptable level.

At various stages even politicians have flagged the issue of whether we should have an Upper House? Does not this need to be debated? – so as to consider the rationale and raison-d’etre, its size and composition, the desirable profiles of its members and what will be the mode of recruitment to that forum. Other issues like for example the duration of the mandates of the President and PM respectively need to be debated. As we can see, therefore, there are a number of important and fundamental issues that need to be thoroughly debated before any decision is taken. We hope these and other issues will be taken up in due course. The sooner the better.

Electoral reforms however are also about power politics. If the Prime Minister would have succeeded in achieving his objective of putting in place a good electoral system for the future and that would ensure government stability, promote fairness, foster broad based socio-demographic inclusion, promote fair gender representation, so much the better. It remains to be seen whether his balancing act would equally serve the political interests of his Party.


* Published in print edition on 28 March 2014

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