Not at the expense of civil liberties

Danielle Selvon, a deputy elected in Constituency No 1 last December, resigned this week from the MSM. This resignation was prompted by the proposed introduction of the highly controversial ‘Good Governance and Integrity Reporting Bill’ involving Constitutional amendment and giving extra-judicial powers to a politically-appointed Agency operating under the Ministry of Good Governance to deal with what is called ‘unexplained wealth’.

When this news about her breaking away from the MSM came out, Navin Ramgoolam, leader of Labour, felicitated her during a public rally for so doing, seemingly on the grounds of her not supporting legislative proposals out of tune with the country’s aspirations as a democracy. He added that the government’s proposed Constitutional amendment should be subjected to a national referendum before it is given effect to.

Aside from the fact that it should have comforted him in the Opposition to see what –along with other developments – may appear to him like a beginning of disintegration of L’Alliance Lepep, his stand raises several questions about the ambivalence of doing politics in Mauritius.

Less than a year ago, the Labour leader, in alliance with the leader of the MMM, had gone to the general election with proposed amendments to the Constitution. Those proposals were as devastating as the ones currently being put forth in relation to the ‘Good Governance and Integrity Reporting Bill’.

They involved tampering with the electoral system which, if it had gone through, would have introduced a strong dose of proportional representation (PR), making party leaders even stronger as sole repositories of power since they would themselves allocate a significant number of proportional seats in the Assembly. More importantly, the PR had the potential to overturn the results of the First Past the Post System which has been crucial so far in maintaining political stability in the country.

The other facet of Constitutional amendment concerned the installation in a single round of elections of a President of the Republic with executive powers for a term of no less than 7 years, immune from prosecution for all his doings and non-doings. Credit must be given to several objective political analysts, including this newspaper, and to the L’Alliance Lepep itself, which were available as a vanguard to stand up against potential abuse in those circumstances. People got scared of the plan of two individuals joined in alliance in a bid to secure personal power, thanks to the prevailing local electoral arithmetic. The Labour-MMM alliance was thrown out by voters.

The felicitation showered by Navin Ramgoolam on Danielle Selvon at her decision to quit the MSM in the context of Lepep’s proposed Constitutional amendment begs the question as to whether such a conduct could even have been contemplated by Navin Ramgoolam when he was planning his own Constitutional amendments last year before the elections. The issue of subjecting any proposed Constitutional amendment to a national referendum before it is given effect to, which many analysts had suggested, was not taken on board then.

No one candidate to the 2014 election or existing deputies, whether from Labour or the MMM, had dared to stand up against the “unwarranted” Constitutional amendments. Had anyone done such a thing, there would have been no ticket for such a ‘conscientious objector’ to stand in the elections. No one from Labour and what remained of the MMM, after its split-away, had uttered a single word, and quietly accepted those outrageous amendments that were offensive to the democratic spirit.

We are not here discussing here about the merits or otherwise of Danielle Selvon’s act of conscience in the face of the government’s proposed Constitutional amendment and overriding of the country’s judicial processes. (Since the time of writing, it has filtered out that Mrs Selvon would be reconsidering her decision to quit her party in view of certain “satisfactory” amendments proposed after her “revolt”.) We are focusing on the double standards of doing politics by party leaders across the board. They will brook no opposition from within when they are in power – but will preach revolt on the other side when it suits their convenience.

Mauritius has been witness for long now to this shallow manner of doing politics. As the years have gone by, politicians have taken advantage of their numbers in the Assembly to amend the Constitution or to enact laws as it suited their convenience and not necessarily for the country’s uplift, debasing politics. And we’ve paid a price for it.

One may recall the Constitutional amendment of 1983 when a dominant MMM-led government made precarious the holding of office by senior public servants. If they did not do their political masters’ bidding – while still being held accountable under Government Establishment Orders – they had to go for the exit. This abhorrent practice has been maintained. Not only has the liberty taken by politicians with the Constitution since then defeated the self-confidence of top public servants – it has constantly been employed by the politicians to undermine the very efficiency of the public service by not always making the top appointments with reference to highest efficiency and merit.

We escaped by the skin of the teeth the Labour-MMM proposed Constitutional amendment, thanks to the good reactions of voters. Had it not been so, abuse might have assumed proportions we haven’t seen yet but which we are fairly acquainted with from the experience that other countries travelling this path have faced.

We are now in presence of yet another outrageous amendment to the Constitution that will take away from citizens ordinary rights they have always enjoyed and befitting of a sound democracy, such as the presumption of innocence and the right to silence. It is likely also to jeopardise the right to property, freedom from arbitrary expropriation, the separation of powers, and recourse to the judiciary rather than to civil dispensation of justice with lip service paid to the judiciary’s role in it.

It is being said that people will love it if, thanks to the present proposed Constitutional amendments, those in possession of ill-gotten wealth will be tracked and strict corrective measures taken by the State. There is no quarrel with this objective so long that it is not carried out selectively or used arbitrarily to settle political scores. But what is more important is that any initiative to combat the acquisition of ill-gotten wealth should be done within the parameters of the law, even if these need to be bolstered up to make the fight more effective, but certainly not at the expense of our civil liberties and, most fundamentally, not contrary to the spirit of our Constitution.

We appear to be on the edge of one more destructive enterprise which will ultimately do nobody any good. In other places, the action of the State helps create wealth by putting economic agents in confidence, not by undermining it for the sake of the big show.

  • Published in print edition on 13 November 2015

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