Electoral Reform: Where to?

Last week we mentioned how a number of unrestrained distractions, some blatantly and outright unpalatable, are being brought into the political discourse. Whereas, as was pointed out, the debate should have instead been focused on the major issues affecting the lives of the people now and likely to do so in the future as well, and the implications and likely consequences of the electoral and constitutional reform proposals that the Labour Party-MMM combine have agreed upon to forge their current electoral agreement.

There are good reasons for the electorate to be thoroughly enlightened about the potential impact of the reform proposals upon the future political governance of Mauritius. This is the more so as their enactment would require a three-quarters majority in the House. Such a majority can only be marshalled in normal circumstances by an alliance of the two major parties of the island. Importantly, though, it is equally unlikely to be undone thereafter for failure to bring together such a majority given that the maintenance of the reformed electoral system as envisaged and spelt out in the March 2014 Consultation Paper (‘Modernising The Electoral System’) would suit the political interests of the MMM and specially of its leader. Would this explain why the details pertaining to electoral reform, in particular the mechanism that will be applied for the allocation of 20 Party List seats based on the ‘unreturned votes elect’ (UVE) formula, are not being debated on political platforms?

Chapter 7 of the Consultation Paper, in particular the part relating to ‘Unreturned Votes Elect’ informs us about the functioning of UVE mechanism. We quote: ’Rather than using the parallel system referred to by the Select Committee which would not address the imbalance of votes and seats, or the compensatory mode of allocating proportional representation seats favoured by the Sachs Commission, which converts the system into a proportional one in many circumstances with the attendant risks of instability, Sithanen proposed the “unreturned votes elect” formula to elect the 20 list tier MPs, i.e. the use of votes of candidates who had polled well but had not been elected. The votes of unelected candidates of all parties are taken into account in all 21 constituencies. The votes are aggregated and the parties are allocated seats according to their share of votes of unreturned candidates nationally.’

The question that arises is what will be the likely impact of the UVE – and its unintended consequences, if any – on the overall electoral outcome? This question assumes greater importance given the unequal sizes of our 20 constituencies as well as the fact that the smaller constituencies tend to support the MMM and the larger ones back the Labour Party. Is it possible for the MMM to obtain more wasted votes than the LP and hence more of the additional seats in spite of it having lost the elections nationwide? What do simulations carried out on previous election results demonstrate in terms of the impact of the UVE on the final seat count? Further, what if these two major parties (Labour Party & MMM) are in opposition to each other? What do simulations point to? We understand that such simulations have indeed been carried out, and their results would not be a matter of comfort for the LP’s electorate.

Manoj Gokhool, Chairman of the UK-based International Centre for Electoral Psychology, is considered as one of the foremost experts in voters’ psychology and the determination of choice. His observations in this week’s interview, to the MT confirm our earlier stand about the need for caution when it comes to overhauling the electoral system: ‘The problem with the Electoral Reform Consultation Paper is that while political science knows of several essential types of wasted votes, the Consultation Paper only considers one of them. This is a critical problem because while ignoring wasted votes is unfair, acknowledging some wasted votes while ignoring others which may potentially be even more important in numbers could result in a system which might not be less but in fact even more unfair, especially as our constituencies tend to vary a lot in size!’ (italics added). He adds that the selective concept of wasted votes means that ‘those who win in small constituencies and lose in big ones (the MMM) get more votes counted under the List system than those who win in large constituencies and lose in small ones (Labour Party)! This is a ’double peine’ for the parties which win the popular vote!’

Has this scenario been presented to the population? It would surely make them think twice before they cast their votes, especially the supporters of LP. Clearly, there is an important reflection that has not been carried out by LP, and it implies inducting the right expertise into the analysis to consider in detail what exactly is being proposed and how this is likely to impact electoral outcome. LP owes it to its electorate – why, to the country as a whole – to get scenario exercises carried out and that will give a close approximation of what the future holds for those who still wish to vote the Alliance into power.

We have consistently maintained that one does not proceed to make such a critical leap in electoral/Constitutional reform on the basis of discussions between two ageing leaders, excluding all others, without any consideration for the views of the people at large. We maintain that considerably more time must be allowed to consider in depth the proposals made, seek the appropriate expertise to perform scenario simulations, present these to the public, and then after factoring in the responses decide on the way forward.

It is the soundness of this country’s future governance that needs to be guaranteed. Until concern for that as a primary issue is expressed in as many words by the leaders of the two parties in Alliance, and the necessary steps taken to address it expertly, voters are advised the greatest caution as they envisage to present themselves at the booth on 10th December.

* Published in print edition on 14  November 2014

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