Virtually every Mauritian has, at some time or other since our political independence, found comfort in the secure knowledge that our electoral process, so vital to the democratic and legal set-up of our Constitution, is a resilient and time-tested one. And, indeed, we have had quite a few general elections under our belt, when winners, losers and their adrenaline-infused partisans alike settle, on that bedrock of certainty, into the post-electoral responsibilities and necessities: governing for the first and healing for the second.
No amount of money politics, no political chieftain, no external agents, no alliance of interested parties, we comfortably felt, could derail or subvert our processes, largely conducted by experienced civil servants, protected by a non-partisan police force, safeguarded by two watchdogs (the Electoral Commission & the Electoral Supervisory Commission) that kept our reputation and democracy afloat, even in the face of lop-sided House majorities. Yes, there were some occasional hiccups, some localized failings, some rancour that could be equably treated by our judiciary and laws, which allow petitions for alleged irregularities at individual constituency levels to be rapidly and satisfactorily addressed.
We could even nurture some pride that, on this front at least, this was no banana republic. But we are all aware that deeper emotive undercurrents and ever-present disruptive forces had to be kept at bay through above board, independent, trustworthy institutions and processes. In a country where the lead-up to and the elections for independence have left tragic memories, deep scars and with the continuing risks of ugly upheavals in a fledgling democracy, the safety, equity, trustworthiness and security of our electoral processes were not simply a psychological comfort, a pleasing theoretical construct but the very foundation stone of democratic rights in our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural setting.
Our forefathers made additional provisions of Best Loser seats to correct communal imbalances in the National Assembly, at the cost, admittedly, of the now-deemed controversial community declaration for candidates at general elections. They found it fit to bolster the sense of equity in our budding nationhood through specific provisions for constitutionally guaranteed independence of key posts; those of Chief Justice, the Office of the DPP and the Police Commissioner come to mind. Such Constitutional protection usually takes the form: “In the exercise of their functions under the Constitution, the … shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other person or authority.” These were therefore the in-built buttresses of what purported to constitute a secure and resilient democratic architecture, subject only to the occasional waywardness of not-so-independent institutions and their office-bearers, which could always be individually taken to task within our judiciary and the Supreme Court, with the ultimate comfort of the Law Lords’ purview.
This is no doubt one of the main reasons why in India, another even more complex multi-cultural setting, its Supreme Court can be resorted to and petitioned by any political party for alleged irregularities in the complicated electoral process and its lengthy conduct, with the judiciary organizing itself to assess numerous complaints about officials, institutions, processes, messaging or any relevant matter within days, providing rapid and effective relief as appropriate and necessary to applicants.
This is the case despite the sub-continent boasting like us of an Election Commission of India which is an autonomous Constitutional Authority responsible for administering all election processes in India. In matters that reach beyond the realm of vote recounts and other specific constituency irregularities pertaining to the Representation of People Act (India), the ability to petition and be heard rapidly by the Supreme Court on non-constituency irregularities seems inherent to the additional level of credibility and confidence provided to all political parties and the population in that country’s democratic electoral process. We would not venture in what circumstances the Indian Supreme Court came to shoulder that vital extra load, but most observers recognize it has been an invaluable element of comfort to the population and to all parties across states, contributing enormously to the vitality, depth and breadth of Indian democracy.
Writing some ten days ago, in the aftermath of the 2019 legislative general elections and its somewhat surprising outcome in favour of the MSM-led team, despite a modest 37% of voter support, there were only rumblings of alleged irregularities to which we ventured to suggest that the Electoral Commission, for its own credibility and for reassuring the population, should attend without delay by commissioning an independent inquiry on its own steam.
Since then the reported instances and allegations of serious potential miscarriage have been growing: massive voter disenfranchisement at canvassing stage, recruitment of canvassers, foreign contractual workers allowed to vote, transport of ballot boxes, voting classes supervision, unexplained pictures of well arranged voting slips in boxes, tampered seals, floating stamped and marked bulletins… the list seems not exhaustive.
Never before in our ten previous general elections had such levels of dysfunctions been witnessed, to the point that Mr Berenger had to backtrack and the legal/constitutional experts of all Opposition political parties and independent specialists have decided to cooperate and compile a full register of serious complaints that seem to have tarnished each and every step of the electoral registration and voting process. From that more evidence-based analysis, we assume they will examine the opportunity to apply to our Supreme Court for a judicial review of ESC conduct of the 2019 elections or any other petition that goes to the heart of a democratic process that has been mired in such unusual controversies.
It must be said en passant that the several explanatory attempts of the ESC and/or the Electoral Commissioner have failed to quell doubts and, in some notorious instances, have raised more incredulity and amusement on social media. It is indeed vitally important that the Supreme Court, if so addressed, does grant an early hearing to a combined petition.
The population needs to be reassured, the doubts have to be dispelled convincingly, all the key players in our electoral process, without being indicted or accused, have to be given the opportunity to explain and better justify their actions in a formal judicial setting, from electoral registration to voting and counting, so that the truths can emerge from the shadows. Press conferences or encounters by the ESC with party representatives are useful but have not dispelled doubts. The Supreme Court seems to be the only setting where the allegations can be probed and the doubts can be laid to rest, as indeed suggested by the Electoral Commissioner himself.
The country needs to get back on track and recover its traditional serenity, the earlier the better.
* Published in print edition on 22 November 2019