Is the risk worth it?

The MMM leader Paul Bérenger has finally obtained what he had been bargaining for since 2012. Well almost. The Electoral Alliance Agreement between the MLP and the MMM, made public last Saturday, has confirmed most of what had been transpiring since a few weeks about the negotiations between the two parties and the modalities of their electoral alliance.

Paul Bérenger has succeeded in bringing the Labour Party to give in to its demands for an equal sharing of electoral tickets (50:50) as well as ministerial berths. Quite probably this applies also to ambassadorial posts, the appointment of board members and CEOs of public institutions, parastatal bodies and State Owned Enterprises. The latter posts are not really important as they do not contribute in any significant measure to GDP; they are mostly required for the “boys” on both sides of the LP-MMM alliance.

More importantly, besides the sharing of electoral tickets by the two parties on a 50/50 basis, Paul Bérenger has extracted from the Labour Party leader Navin Ramgoolam acquiescence for the enactment of ‘The Constitutional Reform Bill’ that will give force of law to a new electoral system. What is being sought to be achieved, besides the maintenance of the First Past the Post formula, is the introduction of 20 Party List seats (with the option of returning Party List MPs from either a single Party List or two separate Party Lists) through the establishment of a minimum threshold of 10% of national votes cast.

On the other hand, the Mauritius Labour Party (MLP) Leader has obtained what, it would seem, he had been after for quite some time: the setting up of Second Republic that will “provide among things, for effective additional powers and substantive responsibilities to be exercised by the President of the Republic”. The powers of the President shall be broadened to include, amongst others, the power of dissolution of Parliament, the possibility of presiding Cabinet or address Parliament whenever he so decides, the appointment and revocation of a Minister subject to the Prime Minister “giving effective consideration to his recommendation”, responsibility for foreign policy and additional powers of appointment of high-level public officials after consultation with the Prime Minister.

There has clearly been an element of give-and-take on both sides of the MLP-MMM alliance with the Labour Party appearing to giving in more than what it had earlier been willing to. That it has softened the no-no stance, publicly aired by its leader, of sharing the Prime Minister’s mandate (à l’israélienne and as worked out by the MSM-MMM alliance from 2000 to 2005) to conceding this post to the MMM for a full five-year mandate – and that too in the context of an equal 50:50 sharing of electoral tickets – speaks eloquently of the assessment the Labour Party’s leadership would have made of the electoral strength of the Party and its inability in the present circumstances to put up a confident and effective front against the erstwhile MSM-MMM Remake or even a three-cornered fight. 10 years in office, especially the second leg of this 10-year long mandate, seems to have dented its focus – having in some instances to invest instead in damage control. This would explain its lack of confidence of beating electoral arithmetic in the face of an MSM-MMM remake in 2015, as it did successfully in 2005.

The MMM, its leader especially, has obtained what it has been after for many years: electoral reform with the introduction of a dose of Proportional Representation that has the potential to skew the balance of power in the country in its favour especially in the context of a three-cornered electoral battle. That will moreover render the need for the MMM to eventually contract any alliance with the Labour Party or the MSM unnecessary.

The political context today has proved opportune for the MMM to extract this concession from a weakened Labour Party. This is the more so as Paul Bérenger must have early on concluded that his Remake with the MSM would not have secured him the required three-quarters’ majority at the next elections, so as to see through legislation for the introduction of Proportional Representation into our Westminster-based electoral system. That would explain his decision to ditch the MSM; it most probably had nothing to do with the so-called “threats to national unity” he alluded to, that could have been provoked by the opposition of the MSM’s leadership to the selection of a front-bencher on an eventual Remake government.

 The rules of the game as regards our electoral system and the governance structure are being modified, for all intents and purposes, to suit political conveniences. In these columns, the case has repeatedly been made regarding the need for either a referendum or for setting 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.

Sooner or later, it will be realised that this bicephalous leadership that is being proposed will not work in spite of the goodwill of both parties and their leaders. Many imponderables may not have been properly thought out as thoroughly as they ought to have been; the possibility of ‘unintended consequences’ is real. It is at the level of operationalising the agreement, as we have argued earlier, that we will know if this is going to work, or wreak havoc and seriously undermine the political stability and serenity that have enabled Mauritius to graduate to a higher level of development.

That differences of opinion are bound to happen was amply demonstrated by the Alliance’s two leaders at their joint press conference relating to the ID cards issue and the MBC-TV director-general’s continuation in office. The latter’s contract has been renewed for another 3 years – whereas Paul Bérenger would have announced his departure once he steps into the PM seat. Mr Callikan’s fate will be telling as to who will call the shots.

The Labour Party is no doubt alive to the inherent threats that Proportional Representation represents to the balance of power in Parliament and in the country. This will definitely tilt, and probably by a large margin, in favour of MMM and, as pointed out above, will surely allow it to dispense altogether with the need to form any alliance in future. At the very least, LP must approach this question with the greatest seriousness.

All told, therefore, it should be clear by now that it is the MMM, that is, Berenger, who is gaining the most from this Alliance especially from the electoral reform of PR through Party List. Definitely the balance of power in its favour would embolden it in ways that may make the harder and more partial side of its leader come promptly to surface in handling the affairs of the country. This would reverse the objectives of the struggle for Independence, and be a big setback to the democratization agenda favoured by LP, among other things. Is the risk worth it?

* Published in print edition on 26 September 2014

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