Proposed Reform of Power Structure: Too many ‘unknown unknowns’

Following the joint press conference held by the leaders of the Labour Party and MMM last Saturday, Paul Berenger met the press on his own last Tuesday to ‘clarify matters’ in relation to the sharing of powers between the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister in an eventual alliance government. So far, only some pointers have emerged about the extent to which the current governance structure will be remodelled to facilitate the coming together of the two major parties of this country.

A reading of the fine print of the LP-MMM agreement, which is due to be made public on 20 September, after ratification by the Assembly of delegates of the MMM next Sunday, will no doubt provide a better perspective of the gains achieved and losses conceded by Ramgoolam and Bérenger in their forced bid to somehow carve out a political alliance. They are likely to have factored in their appreciation of the electoral strength of their respective political parties. Given their age, and their relative burnout due to both age and length of being at the helm of power, it is no surprise that they are in a relative hurry to come to an arrangement that will ensure their continuation in power without too much hassle.

Obviously the only way to do so is to sell it out as being in the larger national interest. The reactions that have been coming from all quarters and sections of the public as well as from diehards of the two parties concerned, despite the so-called unanimous or quasi-unanimous approval of the party political structures, point only too clearly that this may not necessarily be the case, that is, the interests of the two leaders may be predominating in their calculus. This has spawned the reference to a President-‘vase à fleurs’ or a Prime Minister-‘marionnette’.

However, we are not particularly concerned about all this. What is more of concern to us are the likely consequences of the constitutional changes that are being envisaged — long after the LP and MMM leaders would have made their exit from the political stage. The large print of the LP-MMM agreement announced by Navin Ramgoolam and Paul Bérenger suggests a significant, major departure from the current Westminsterian-based governance structure which has provided good enough stability to date. This radical shift towards a semi-presidential system will be the outcome of a one-round election of a President conducted on the basis of universal, direct suffrage. His powers will be bolstered up with prerogatives and powers now falling under the authority of the Prime Minister.

Unfortunately, what has been announced so far looks rather vague and does not indicate clear-cut guidelines and demarcation lines with regard to the territories to be controlled by the two principal political heads of the country post the constitutional reform they envisage. Will the fine print, once it comes out, be more specific and precise in so far as the exercise of powers by the next President of the Republic and the Prime Minister – acting ‘in consultation with’ (that is, in his own deliberate judgement) or ‘on the advice of’ (which is binding) – is concerned? Vagueness will not do. It will be the surest recipe for institutional and political instability, the more so as the leaders of the Labour Party and the MMM have amply demonstrated that they differ in ideological terms on a number of issues, such as monetary policy, energy, etc.

What, for example, of ‘democratisation of the economy’ which LP made its electoral plank in 2005, in the wake of the Illovo deal which was clearly antithetical to the very idea of democratisation? The MMM is known for its defence of the ideology that led to that deal, and that has ramifications in the energy sector amongst others. Democratisation means allowing a level playing field, allowing more players in so as to provide equal opportunity for all. The MMM has never stated its position on such democratisation, that LP advocates.

Which of the two leaders will be prepared to dilute his ideological wine for the sake of the political alliance? And will their political underwriters agree to such dilution? Notwithstanding the fine print of the LP-MMM agreement and the alluded alchemy between the two leaders canvassed lately in some quarters, it is far from obvious that there will be accommodation on such fundamental divergences. And the existence of separate centres of power is likely to exacerbate the resulting tensions, a further potential source of instability.

The need for a strong, stable and decisive government to tackle pressing issues like the fight against corruption or the growing lawlessness on the roads and elsewhere, as well as creating the conditions that would fast-track our graduation to a high-income economy need not be over emphasized. But there are too many ‘unknown unknowns’ – to use an expression of George Bush’s Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeldt – in what is being proposed, and there is still a lot of convincing to do to the people of Mauritius as to how and what the envisaged constitutional reform that will govern political governance in the future will enable that which the current one cannot achieve.

In these columns, the case has repeatedly been made regarding the need for either a referendum or to set up an independent constitutional reform commission, and give it sufficient time to deliberate all the options and scenarios and then make recommendations. The reform being proposed is no less than a shift of the seat of power, and that will result in a bicephalous power structure. We have seen what is happening in France: all the weaknesses of such an arrangement even in a seasoned democracy such as the land of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ have been exposed, like woodworms creeping out of the holes in the foundation. That is how shaky the new system may turn out to be.

Further, as the seat of power will shift from Government House to Le Réduit, the focus will be more on the election of ‘nou’ President. The risks involved are only too evident: communal and caste considerations will dictate the choice of candidates bankrolled by the ‘détenteurs’ of economic power. Are we prepared for this sort of gamble? We cannot but reiterate that there are too many unknowns ahead, and much more thinking and working out is required before the country is forced to make what could turn out to be a precipitous leap in the dark.

* Published in print edition on 12 September 2014

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