Electoral Reform: Remember Dec 2014

Editorial

Any electoral reform project hatched behind the back of the people and designed to satisfy the political conveniences of political parties, especially of their leaders, usually end up flying in the face of those same leaders…

Many of the comments we have made over the years on proposals by political parties, in particular the two main ones – the Labour Party and the MMM – and the MSM are still valid to this day. What in our view is fundamental is that any electoral reform agenda should buy in the support of the people. It has therefore to win prior popular approval at elections before it goes through the legislative process for its implementation. This is because elections and electoral reform usually have a long-lasting bearing on the long term and can potentially upset the stability of the country.

Any electoral reform project hatched behind the back of the people and designed to satisfy the political conveniences of political parties, especially of their leaders in view of their political ambitions, are inherently destabilising and usually end up flying in the face of those same leaders and/or whatever their parties have stood for all along. The Labour Party learnt this lesson bitterly in December 2014 with its Second Republic agenda contrived with the keen and earnest support of the MMM. This paper took issue with the LP-MMM’s Second Republic in 2014 – for the right reasons, as conceded by the Labour Party leadership thereafter; good political sense always seem to prevail when one is in the opposition, only to be thrown to the wind when the hubris of power takes over, in turn, in our political set-up, in a quasi musical chair scenario.

Bits and pieces of what the ministerial committee chaired by the Minister Mentor, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, would be proposing for electoral reform have been coming out lately. These have been variously commented by the leaders of the Labour Party, MMM, the PMSD and by the press. Is this one of those diversionary stunts resorted to by governments of all ilk to draw people’s attention away from the real problems confronting the country and the common man – or in the case of the present government, from the series of scandals that have marked the Alliance Lepep’s government tenure in office? Quite unlikely. The latest agenda for reform has been triggered by the constitutional case put up by Resistans ek Alternativ before the Supreme Court, which seeks 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.

But there is more to it: besides the compulsion to satisfy the UN Human Rights Committee’s ruling, the MSM’s poor governance so far imposes on this party the need for an alliance with the MMM to ensure its political survival. That however comes with a price, which the Labour Party was willing to pay in December 2014 when it agreed to meet the MMM half way then, by acceding to the latter’s condition for the inclusion of Proportional Representation (PR) in our electoral system – 14 PR seats together with 6 Party List seats besides the 63 First Past the Post (FPTP) seats, as well as the power-sharing arrangement which would have seen the LP leader nominated as President of the Republic and the MMM taking over the reins of Prime Minister for a full five-year mandate.

Not much has changed in terms of the motivations behind the proposals for electoral reform. What has transpired so far as regards the intention of the Ministerial Committee of the present government suggests the replacement of the Best Losers by 6 to 9 additional seats, the nomination of which will be taken care of after elections by party leaders (after the allocation of quotas to be determined by the Electoral Commission to eligible parties) with a view to ensuring adequate ethnic representation in Parliament. What this entails is that we are moving away from a Constitution-regulated system of nomination of Best Losers to party leader-nominees, thereby ensuring in the process the consolidation of leaders’ hold on their respective parties. The second measure envisaged, according to press reports, would relate to the inclusion of PR in the system to better reflect the voting pattern of the electorate and subsequent representation in Parliament. Paul Berenger has stated last Friday that this does not meet the MMM’s expectations, but that’s at least a beginning worthy of consideration by his party — and support “under protest” should it come for approval by the present legislature.

Any reform that is potentially destabilising or contains the possibility of altering electoral outcomes voted by the people 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. Whereas we should be moving towards the democratisation of politics, the present proposals of the MSM-ML government would only strengthen the dictatorship of party leaders.

Rama Sithanen is right to draw the population’s attention to the fact that whatever will be proposed by the present government would amount to a partisan approach to electoral reform designed primarily for political expediency – not the independent and objective submissions of experts well versed in electoral systems.

Moreover it should be recalled that the MMM has for years been campaigning for the inclusion of PR in our electoral 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

We have said earlier that any electoral reform exercise 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 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. Further, the disparate number of voters forming part of distinct constituencies needs to be rationalized to a reasonable more level – this is. a general feeling among the population.

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.

Overall, at this stage, two points need to be highlighted. One is that satisfying the UN requirements does not necessarily mean rushing through any electoral reform which must, repeat must, obtain the population’s approval through the polls. Second, as was done before the 2014 general election, the compulsion for declaration of ethnicity should be removed by a mini-amendment to the Constitution.


* Published in print edition on 13 September 2018

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