General elections can have long lasting consequences and in some cases overturning impacts. That is why electoral reform, which has a direct bearing on the long term, is not a simple matter only for statisticians or party leaders to juggle with as they hatch together an electoral deal for their political survival. It concerns the stability and future of the people of this country. It has therefore to win prior popular approval at elections before it goes through the legislative process for its implementation.
Any reform which breeds or yields instability in the country or contains the possibility of altering electoral outcomes voted by the people in their majority – remember the political crisis in Rodrigues, with the inclusion of proportional representation (PR) into the electoral system put in place there – would call for course correction through the constitutionally prescribed parliamentary majority of three quarters of the House – and this can only be carried out provided one commands that specified majority. The stakes therefore for political parties and, more especially, for the population, are high.
The latest agenda for reform has been triggered by the constitutional case put up by Resistans ek Alternativ before the Supreme Court seeking clarifications from the government on what it proposes in terms of reform with a view to eliminating the compulsory declaration by candidates of their ethnicity in the context of the Best Loser System (BLS), as required following the ruling of the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Bits and pieces of what the ministerial committee chaired by the Minister Mentor, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, would be proposing have come out, and as expected these have been variously commented by the leaders of the MMM, the PMSD and by the press. At least the PMSD was frank enough to state its views openly: maintenance of BLS and conduct of new Population Census.
We have not heard much from the Labour Party; it’s Rama Sithanen who has stepped into the debate to voice out his already widely known views on the matter and ultimately his proposals for “an achievable compromise to break the electoral reform deadlock”. We do not know whether it would be reasonable to assume that Mr Sithanen’s views, and his latest “compromise” proposals reflect the Labour Party’s position on this matter and in particular about his plea in favour of the inclusion of a dose of PR into our electoral system. Political expediency had seen the Labour Party meet the MMM half way in December 2014, by acceding to the latter’s condition for the inclusion of 14 PR seats together with 6 Party List seats besides the 63 First Past the Post (FPTP) seats.
It will be recalled that it is the MMM that has been asking for ‘electoral reform’ for a number of years now. The MMM is keen to get PR of some sort introduced into the voting system. While, in general, an element of PR would achieve some amount of fairness by correcting weird outcomes like 60-0 or 57-3, it does not go without risks. For, depending on the formula employed and the numbers finally qualifying under the PR, there could be a risk of instability in the House. Besides spawning all manner of communal and casteist groupings, PR could be used to trim down a party’s effective majority and, where the difference is too marginal between the two main blocs, this may open the way for attempts to be undertaken for upsetting the FPTP outcome. In any event, whether in government or in opposition, the MMM stands to lose nothing once PR is introduced in the system. With PR, it will secure a larger number of seats than it usually obtains under the FPTP
It is a fact that under the existing electoral system which puts a premium on the FPTP, opposition parties had often been under-represented in terms of seats obtained in relation to the percentage of votes they had secured in the election. In order to address this inequity, reports had been commissioned in the past in order to obtain a better balance among parties. The recommendations of such reports – the Sachs Commission, the Carcassonne Report and the Sithanen Report or modified versions thereof — have however never been implemented.
Whatever may have been the motivations for addressing the issue of electoral reform in past years, it was worthwhile to seek a better reflection of the voting pattern as among the political parties, thereby correcting the intrinsic weakness of an electoral system that had in the past thrown up governments with lopsided majorities in relation to the votes cast in their favour. But it bears repeating that the process of electoral reform should also address other critical issues beside fair representation at the level of Parliament. For example, the issue of the financing of electoral campaigns of distinct parties by certain vested economic interests, which may end up capturing State policy-making, bending decisions in favour of the financiers to the detriment of the public interest. Another issue that should also be taken up: democracy inside political parties, to ensure operational and functional transparency and control over party finances, which is clearly not always the case. The disparate number of voters forming part of distinct constituencies need to be rationalized to a more acceptable level.
Ultimately it will be for civil society to play fully its role so that we do not become saddled with yet another system, the inimical consequences of which it will take as many years to correct. The passivity of citizens should not make us endorse solutions that would serve primarily the interests and ambitions of individual party leaders. What has been clear from the outset is that the proposal for electoral reform is firmly tied to the political objectives or projects of the party in question. In the present context, the MSM will try to abide by the UN’s ruling for non-declaration of a candidate’s ethnicity, but at the same time it will make sure that any reform proposed leaves space for an alliance for the next elections – most likely with the MMM. Such an important reform, though, must obtain the approval of the people through due electoral process. In the December 2014 general election, the people gave their verdict massively: against the Second Republic proposal of the LP-MMM combine which included a dose of PR. In the 2019/2020 general election, it’s the people who must be given the prerogative to decide on the issue of electoral reform, and let them decide. This is the only acceptable and genuinely democratic way to settle this issue.
* Published in print edition on 18 May 2018