Whether electoral reform is a pressing issue
In the aftermath of the recent break-up of the government, the MMM came forth with the question of electoral reform. Such was the certificate of urgency given to this subject that both the MSM, freshly out of the government, and Labour, faced with a sharply thinned down majority in the House, were all ears to the MMM’s demand for electoral reform. In view of the speed with which this matter was taken up by all parties all at once, speculation was rife that this might have been a sheer pretext for new political alliances. A communiqué dated 14 September issued by the Prime Minister’s Office, states that the Prime Minister has decided to set up a team of three foreign constitutional experts to review and report on the subject of electoral reform in Mauritius by the end of this year. This has been justified on the grounds that this item figures in the program of the Alliance de l’Avenir and that it is appropriate to undertake it at an early stage of the government’s current mandate. The timing of the exercise is also meant to give stakeholders time to weigh the recommendations to be made.
The terms of reference of this team are to ensure (i) the efficiency of the electoral system which should produce governments having a clear majority reflecting voters’ choice; (ii) fairness of the system inasmuch as it should give due representation in the House to parties which deserve to be so represented, and (iii) comprehensive communal representation in the House without forsaking the necessary national character of representatives.
Translated into simpler language, the three objectives of the work being commissioned are to maintain clear majorities as will be thrown up by the existing First Past the Post System, secondly, to introduce a dose of proportional representation such that parties having secured a “significant” share of votes cast are duly represented in the House and, thirdly, to continue giving comfort to the population by allowing for sufficient numbers to be appointed to the House from diverse specific groups in the population.
We cannot pre-empt the recommendations of the expert team but it would appear that the First Past the Post System is still meant to set the pace in terms of election of candidates. The second objective amounts to making an allowance for parties having scored a certain acceptable proportion of the votes cast to be represented in some relation to the votes cast in their favour and for those not having secured a threshold minimum share of votes to be eliminated altogether from representation. A smaller threshold will invite small groups to blackmail the bigger political parties by seeking to get into the House proportionately to the number of votes cast in their favour and hence encourages a deeper fragmentation of society than it is actually the case. The third objective amounts to allowing a best loser system to continue operating so that individual communities feel “secure”.
As far as we are able to judge, the MMM’s intention was to overhaul the electoral system so that, on the strength of its usually unvarying core support, it would be placed in the position of either forming future governments on its own or leading them from a largely senior position. That would have been the case where proportional representation were to be given a heavy weight in terms of election results. There is no indication from the above terms of reference that it would be so; in fact, proportional representation would merely be playing second fiddle to the First Past the Post System which will, in fact, be driving the efficiency or clear majority for the substantial part of the new system. In this case a higher minimum threshold will finally reduce the electoral system to a twosome game.
We do not know however what the experts will ultimately recommend to deal with the supposed “flaws” of the prevailing system. It will be for civil society to play fully its role so that we do not become saddled with yet another system eventually which it will take as many years to amend again to good purpose, as it has taken for the present proposal to review the existing system to emerge. The customary passivity of citizens should not, in this otherwise important matter, make us endorse solutions that would serve primarily interests and conveniences of individual political parties by undermining the essential democratic outfit. Emerging social forces should not be cowed down by so-called expertise of the experts because they are foreign; there is nothing sacrosanct about all this. When the ideas are put on the table, local public opinion should be in a position to thrash them out so that we do not fall from the frying pan into the fire.
When the MMM put forward in past weeks the issue of electoral reform, we posted our view that there were many other priorities beckoning the country. We maintain this view. The moment is not opportune for trailing red herrings such as electoral reform. The priorities of the moment relate to the necessary overhauling of the country’s production structure and evolving a vision that should take us afloat from the choppy waters of current and prospective economic turmoil. We have done too little to reposition our resources, technology and skills in several past years for us to be able to make a successful incursion into the shape of markets to come. We have hardly addressed our cost structures and prioritized our investment opportunities that should enable us to break out from the trap of inefficiency and limited market access hanging over our heads. It is a luxury to be spending time and attention on esoteric issues when there is so much work to do and few leaders directing us to address the deficits that have come into play. A wise country knows where its priorities lay and, having identified them, it loses no time to address them sequentially and consistently to bring it back into a position of force. We are going amiss on this agenda. Let us attend to the essentials and leave the details to fall into place when their time is ripe.