Yet another committee on electoral reform

On 22nd December 2015, Cabinet took the decision to set up a committee headed by the Deputy Prime Minister, Xavier-Luc Duval, and consisting of ten other ministers to make recommendations on electoral reforms.

The terms include: the introduction of a dose of proportional representation in the National Assembly, to ensure better women representation, to examine the mandatory declaration of community, anti-defection measures, widening of the powers of the Electoral Supervisory Commission, considering the Financing of political parties Bill and of amendments to the electoral system of Rodrigues.

Queried about this project, the Prime Minister stated in his customary no-nonsense style that he was not in favour of introducing any element in the electoral system the effect of which would be to overturn the primary outcome of the elections. He had said so much on a recent occasion while visiting Rodrigues. In this sense, the ministerial committee is not expected to introduce such proportional representation (PR) in its recommendations which fail to reflect voters’ choice as to the fundamental outcome of an election.

British voters had the same reaction a couple of years ago when they decided to leave untouched their First Past the Post (FPTP) system when asked to consider introducing PR in Britain’s electoral system in a bid to better balance electoral outcomes.

Here, in Mauritius, there have been various recommendations made down the years to change the electoral system as currently enshrined in the Constitution. Reports have been produced and shelved away in succession. And for good reason.

The latest such reports and recommendations go back to 2013 and 2014. Voters were able to read through the private intentions the politicians had in the proposed Constitutional changes, notably by introducing election of a large number of MPs on the basis of the PR system having the potential to change the FPTP results and even going as far as introducing an unimpeachable Presidential system with a term of 7 years. Voters saw clearly into this and the proposed party list system an attempt to reinforce the ‘dictatorship’ in which certain political leaders already held their parties. They threw out the proposals in the ballot of December 2014, even taking the risk to bring in another untested group into government.

Of the issues to be considered by the present ministerial committee, three items have relevance. These include: the current mandatory requirement for candidates to elections to declare the community they belong to so as to be eligible to participate in elections, the financing of political parties and giving more powers to the Electoral Supervisory Commission.

We have to react to the ruling given by the United Nations Human Rights Commission in the context of the petition brought before it by Resistans ek Alternativ, which put the government of Mauritius under a duty to report how it proposes to change the current requirement for candidates to be eligible to stand only if they declare the community they belong to. There is a time frame in which to convey our decision in the matter.

Communal identification is a peripheral issue compared with the most important issue regarding the financing of political parties. Many would be aware that money most politicians receive from undisclosed sources influence decisions in favour of the “generous donors”.

This is at the root of a wide-ranging system of corruption and perversion of the values by which a democratic society such as ours should have lived.

Not only it is suspected that political leaders in receipt of such “donations” make decisions selectively, once in power, to favour their “benefactors” or to do their bidding – at the cost of others, more deserving, or by changing the rules of the game if need be. They would also employ their powers to bend rules, or dictate public institutions in charge of administering the country’s laws not to act against their protégés’ abusive practices due to the latters’ overbearing influence on the political class. The effect of this system of return of favours can only prove catastrophic to the country’s good standing. Public institutions would have in the process been undermined. Worse, they could also have been disempowered and their chief office holders made to live in constant fear of the wrath of politicians in power and their clique of protégés.

It is believed that the system has spawned corruption into the most unexpected places. Public servants would thus have lived in perpetual fear of losing their jobs if they happened to offend the political “donors” or their businesses. This could be the reason why we’ve been seeing a continuous lowering of the high standards by which public servants abided in the past. It would appear any initiative they take has to be vetted first by chief politicians posing as super-administrators themselves.

Changes have been made in revenue laws (tax reductions, exemptions, etc.) or public policies (exchange rate, level of the interest rate) time and oft without the public even suspecting who the targeted beneficiaries are in the “retour-de-la-manivelle” scenarios playing out over a fairly long stretch of time now. It shows why “donors” are so much beholden to their chosen political parties, while not being discourteous to the rest of the political party establishment.

It has been alleged publicly that political “donations” are not usually made to the official treasurers of concerned political parties. It appears they would have gone directly to leaders of the parties, disguised as the parties’ “sole owners”. If such a practice has been commonplace, it would also explain why leaders of political parties are those who, by virtue of controlling the finances of the party, conduct themselves as dictators against the rest of the party’s membership.

This would thus give them life-and-death powers over the rest of the fold, giving tickets to only those who will be compliant and rejecting any who would be strong-minded enough to hold it out against them or having opposed them in the past on proposed decisions. Over time, this process has ensured that political parties have emptied themselves of the true values they’ve stood for historically, but kow-towers have stayed on. Party supremoes’ wielding absolute power on the parties’ finances do not have to account to anybody about their use of funds belonging to the party, isn’t it?

As things stand today, political parties do not prepare true annual accounts. They are not registered with either the Registrar of Associations or of Companies and so, are not subjected to audit and public accountabilities on their sources and uses of funds. Maybe they do some formalities of this sort, without going to the true substance looking into all the ins and outs of party finances.

Not only this, they formally declare without batting an eyelid to the Electoral Commission not having exceeded the low historical threshold of expenditure (Rs 250,000) laid down in electoral regulations to be spent at maximum by individual candidates. When it jumps to the eye that this could only be a fairy tale in the light of the evidence of the profligacies they parade out in the course of a campaign!

There is a big black hole as regards the finances of political parties. It must have been deliberately kept in this condition to enable their leaders – sorry, their owners – to enrich themselves way out of proportion to their ordinary incomings. It is not surprising that Mauritius’ political class has successively successfully devalued itself with the passage of time. Team A appears to have disappeared altogether.

All told, Mauritius today doesn’t have electoral reform as a priority on its agenda. We’ve managed to retain social stability and comfortable across-the-board representation of our different social components without anyone bearing down oppressively on the other. We only need to restate or eliminate altogether the communal terminology underlying the Best Loser System.

Enough games have been played by politicians in this chapter in the recent past to “refresh” themselves. But, if “electoral reforms” have to be looked into, the focus should be on party financing and a solid, independently supervised mechanism could be put in place to verify the multitude of abuses lax regulations and the want of explicit accountability and transparency the “management” of party finances has so far given rise to.

Mauritius’ priority today should have been to establish a realistic step-by-step workable architecture for its economy to launch itself on a self-sustaining – not one-off – course. Global conditions keep asking us to be realistic on this front. A few constructions will not take us there. We will need to put substance of an enduring type in all of this. But if politicians have energy to spare, they could stop the political rot emanating from corrupt financing of parties. They might also recommend actions to be taken to stop its negative impact on public policy and how to keep our public institutions immune to its insidious interferences.

 

 

* Published in print edition on 22 January

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