Identity Politics

and the Dangers of Miscalculated Reforms in Our Electoral System

 One of the specialities of a certain brand of doing politics is to identify potential social fractures, and then, to exploit them to advantage. We saw that happening in Mauritius with the elections for independence.

A clear dividing line was drawn skilfully since then along ethno-religious lines so as to pitch one section of the population against the other, and move majorities to one side and minorities to the other side. With time, politicians have employed the so-called “divide-and-rule” tactic to exclude those not in their immediate proximity.

A population, which was originally divided along the four groups listed in the Constitution, went on being practically further parcelled out into additional unofficial sub-groups when it came to elections. This splintering phenomenon has added to the inefficiency with which our public institutions are managed. The country has suffered by depriving itself of the best competencies it could have employed to drive its agenda.

It is not surprising that our range of choice has narrowed down even when it comes to the political offer. We are forced to choose from among leaders who have often performed badly during their term of office. The system prevents alternatives to them from coming up. Some newcomers, who have challenged the classic scenario of ever new permutations and combinations of classic parties seeking votes, have not been able to overturn this self-perpetuating system. Mauritius has had to do with more of the same.

In the face of failure to overhaul the decrepit system, questions have been and are being asked as to whether we can transcend a model of governance which has kept delivering ever worse outcomes at the country level. It seems the electoral system has gone so much into divisive politics that it has proved well-nigh impossible to make it produce outcomes focused on the country’s advancement rather than on the welfare of quasi-irremovable individual political leaders. On the other hand, a rehash of the existing system, by renewing it in different dressings after each general election, has kept failing us.

All this is frustrating for a country with limited resources having to deal with an increasingly complex and challenging world. We are constantly being reminded that our progress doesn’t depend on how much more deeply we can cut our existing cleavages or use electoral devices to get on top of each other.

Our progress depends on setting an objective, realistic and ambitious agenda for the country and implementing it with the help of the best team we can mobilize across-the-board, despite strong international headwinds. It is not by perpetuating communal fears and sub-divisions that we can reach that goal.

No one will dispute that wide-ranging inclusiveness and constant renewal of decision-makers is a better way to get to national objectives than by remaining frozen in a parochial distribution of advantages on securing power. But government after government have kept demonstrating that petty private considerations are quick to relegate the bigger national agenda to the background. Instead of reckoning with successes scored, we’ve kept reckoning with the multiplication of public scandals. Surely not the best way to govern a country?

It is at the time politicians drive wedges the most within specific social groups, due to private hostilities of ambitious leaders against each other, that calls for electoral reform become even more strident. If the aim was to seek a more balanced representation of government and opposition, democracy would come out a winner. But if the aim is to topple the other for the sake of perpetuating political power in one’s hands, as a sectional representative, tilting away political power for good, the country might enter into an auto-destructive phase.

One has to be mindful therefore when there are persistent calls for introducing PR in the system when internal division is at its worst on account of clash of personalities. Should that give rise to an overturning political situation in the country, the instability of identity politics may set in firmly thenceforward and wreak havoc. Politicians from both sides of the fence have shown for a long number of years now that they will not hesitate to take advantage of divisions and sub-divisions they have themselves cultivated and exploited over years.

Are there concrete examples of the damage divisive politics can land us into?

Indeed, there are plenty of them. Mistrust of the Polish migrant and other migrants sharing in government welfare spending has left Britain rudderless today. How its future will shape into is unknown.

In 2011, a series of ‘Arab Springs’ erupted, beginning in Tunisia, then in Egypt, Syria, Libya… These were protests against regimes of dictators who ran the countries for their own advantages and those of their cliques. Protestors wanted to replace them with accountable democratic systems. What happened in the end? Dictators or their replacements set up extremist radical militants against the protestors as defenders of the faith. The final round? Endless strife and the return of new dictators. Not many speak today about the high hopes against dictatorships the ‘Arab Springs’ had aroused among the victim populations.

The latest example is Turkey. Its Prime Minister, now turned President, was jolted last year by a military coup which he survived, against the background of simmering discontent with his rule. Taking the coup as a pretext, he has been busy consolidating personal power. He exacerbated passions against the country’s Kurdish minority, suspended or sacked several tens of thousands of workers in public service on the pretext they were affiliated to a cleric opposed to him and residing in the US for a long number of years, giving him out to be the fomenter of the coup. He has just had a law passed extending his powers to absolute levels, which is to be ratified in a referendum by a population severely intimidated by the extremist measures he has taken.

Divisions among the population end up inviting dictators. Unless Mauritians are wary of it, we also run the risk of an abrupt toppling of political power should we adopt miscalculated reforms in our electoral system.

M.K.

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