Answering the issues of Resistans ek Alternativ does not require that we adopt a PR system which has shown that it is fraught with many unknowns and quite a few risks. There may be simpler avenues than the different conflicting unsatisfactory solutions being considered
Time is running out on government for bringing in the constitutional amendments to meet the commitment it undertook vis-à-vis the Resistans ek Alternativ case in the Supreme Court and/or the Privy Council, namely ending the necessity for electoral candidates to declare their belonging to one of four ethno-religious or “way of life” sub-groups. The other alternative, brought up by the UN Human Rights Committee, is an update of the 1970s census of ethno-religious categorisation of Mauritians, seen by most political parties, with the notable exception of the PMSD, as a retrograde option after 50 years of independence.
The underlying issues relate to our sense of national identity and the necessity or not to continue with the operation of the Best Loser System (BLS), a corrective mechanism devised during pre-independence constitutional consultations to cater for potential under-representation of these same aforementioned sub-groups. And in the alternative of doing away with it, whether a degree of proportional representation (PR) could subsume the BLS with a comparable form of psychological reassurance for various “minorities”. The question has been largely and eloquently canvassed here and elsewhere by knowledgeable observers and the debate is fully alive and ongoing.
“The second inherent problem with our FPTP that has made its impact felt in several general elections are the wide swings in Parliamentary seat outcome as a result of relatively modest electorate mood swings. This has given us our notorious 60-0s and other distorted outcomes that provide an incoming Alliance with an almost free hand with constitutional tinkering to suit its particular agenda. This deprives large sections of the population of an adequate representation, but more problematically, places our larger constitutional equilibria in jeopardy…”
The BLS beast
Our BLS system is a beast we and every party politic know, although the real impact of BLS on serious under-representation of any sub-group cannot be clearly demonstrated on the evidence of more than a dozen general elections. Nevertheless its safety-valve value resides in the complex psyche of electioneering and was negotiated in a different highly-charged context. Moreover the Anglo-Saxon colonial masters are not averse to the acceptance and definition of cultural and religious sub-groups as integral contributors to the overall national community. Its proponents say it helps identify underprivileged communities in various walks of life and devise corrective policies: recruitments, career prospects, health, education and other social or economic disparities between different segments of the population. Pragmatism is and remains an Anglo-Saxon hallmark and it no doubt influenced the birthing of our Constitutional setup.
One may agree or find the French model of the Republic, where all are assumed to be identical elements of the whole, equal in rights and responsibilities, with no identifiable particular groups. Republican unitarian thought and practices in civic affairs may be more palatable intellectually yet it means French authorities can with utmost difficulty have hard data on such sub-groups as first generation Maghreb migrant settlers, or the fate of Vietnamese settlers or the conditions of Caribbean-origin settlers in the Metropolitan Republic. Laudable as the objective may be, the unitarian approach fails to convince in several areas. The immigrant-origin cités and metropolitan suburbs, the difficulties of outlying DOM-TOMs populations, can only be recognised by authorities as “zones difficiles” or “zones prioritaires” for numerous issues from education provision to employment prospects to community policing.
Clearly we have both strands competing in our political and psycho-social make-up. The pragmatism of the Brits, sometimes pushed to its unwelcome “divide and rule” offshoot, allows multi-cultural Britain, with some of its excesses, to flourish relatively peaceably. If one believes its cost is the UKIP or an exacerbation of right-wing nationalist fringes, these are equally manifest with the Front National in republican France with the iconic figures of the Lepen clan. In both models of societies, discriminatory treatment by police, local authorities and private employers, are not uncommon. Neither pragmatism nor unitarianism in my opinion have clear advantages, and one can prefer the fruit salad on the Dover side and the compote de fruits on the Calais side of the Manche!
The “None of the above” category
Where does that leave us with our BLS system? Personally, having seen and felt first-hand both systems at work, I have no difficulties with its modest level of operation and its residual psychological value provided that no candidate be forced to be straight-jacketed in one of the four constitutionally identified sub-groups. In other words, in a minimal change approach, one could consider the inclusion of a fifth group “None of the above”, to cater for all those who don’t or don’t want to fit or those who feel their sense of Mauritianism should override the pragmatic element in BLS.
It does not necessarily imply a detailed updated survey of our hundreds of community beliefs if the question is more simply of the type “for purposes of the electoral correction mechanism, do you wish to be associated (recognised) with one of the following five sub-groupings…”. In other words, could the BLS be made to operate on five sub-groups with regard to ease of implementation and the reliability of the mathematical calculations to derive Best Losers? Such a proposal, perhaps with a sunset review clause basis, may be enough to answer the constitutional case in Court until such time as more voters and candidates give growing weight to the “None of the above” category and the BLS can be allowed a natural demise…
Of course the main argument in its favour is that it would avoid Constitutional experimentation with PR, which, once the can is opened, may hold too many surprises for our democratic setup further down the road. Major political parties seem to favour the introduction of a dose of PR, varying from 12 to 20 at the utmost in a Parliament of 62, which would subsume and therefore do away with the need for Best Losers. In recognising this tendency to PR, we are not unaware that the body politic as a whole may also have some other objectives in mind. Some may be laudable ones like improving gender representation, but others will notoriously add to the bargaining positions and prospects of party leaders and their politburos. The rather obnoxious party lists, in all their variants, come to mind…
One man, one vote
If constitutional amendments are to come to the table of open discussions, there are at least two far more unacceptable situations that have come to the fore and could be addressed for the sake of future generations. The first is the unjustifiable situation where some constituencies clock in at some 22,000 voters, spread over an urban stretch of some roads and suburbs within a few miles radius, while several others clock in at more than twice that number, and are spread over a wide span of individual villages, townships and hamlets. It has evolved over time with population dynamics and shifts but, these days, the situation makes hollow the “one man, one vote” premise.
Should the body politic and the Electoral Boundaries Commission find a major redraft laden with practical difficulties, our legislators should consider a Constitutional amendment that imposes a tolerance limit for acceptable deviance from mean or between highest and lowest voter constituencies. For example, where voters are 100% higher than the lowest constituency in mainland Mauritius, that constituency would automatically qualify for an additional seat and parties could field 4 candidates if they so wish. Four MPs are not an exaggerated demand for such constituencies that extend over the whole of Black River, Savanne or Grand Port-Rose Belle should their voter size exceed the minimum constituency by more than two-fold. That constitutional proviso does not seem unfathomably complex to entertain and put in place.
Electorate mood swings
The second inherent problem with our FPTP that has made its impact felt in several general elections are the wide swings in Parliamentary seat outcome as a result of relatively modest electorate mood swings. This has given us our notorious 60-0s and other distorted outcomes that provide an incoming Alliance with an almost free hand with constitutional tinkering to suit its particular agenda. This deprives large sections of the population of an adequate representation, but more problematically, places our larger constitutional equilibria in jeopardy. While a few of the Constitutional amendments brought in by previous regimes may have been justified, the risks and dangers of such a situation have been undoubtedly magnified during tenure of the Alliance Lepep.
There are not many practical solutions to prevent the magnitude of those swings. From what PR proponents have suggested, the corrections brought in by a dose of PR, plus correction of PR distortions, would in practice barely affect the lop-sided majorities. A possible avenue for constitutionalists and body politic is to consider mitigating measures regarding the ease of voting constitutional amendments. For instance, where an Alliance has been elected to office with less than a percentage, say 50%, of votes at national level, constitutional amendment proposals could be submitted to a mandatory referendum for a simple majority agreement of 51% over and above the required three-quarter parliamentary majority.
Answering the legitimate issues of Resistans ek Alternativ does not require that we adopt a PR system which has shown that it is fraught with many unknowns and quite a few risks. There may be simpler avenues than the different conflicting unsatisfactory solutions being considered. Besides, there are indeed far more important issues if our Constitution needs amendment to take account of cumulative experience and the challenge of leaving a safe, reliable and stable system for future generations.
* Published in print edition on 11 May 2018