Ethnicity and the Best Loser System

Political representation in Mauritius

By S. Chidambaram

The perennial debate about the best loser system and the need to declare one’s ethnicity or religion when filling the form for standing candidate in the general election has surfaced again. The arguments for or against such procedures are well known and need not be repeated here. The crux of the matter basically concerns the political representation of the communities in the Legislature.

It was so easy in 1982 and in 1995 to secure the necessary majority to amend the Constitution to abolish the system, and even today a motion either from the government and the opposition can be tabled and if the two parties are for the abolition, this can easily be done. But the politicians and important sections of the population know that the issue is much more complex, for it goes to the root of the stability of our political system. In fact the whole question revolves around the need to ensure the adequate representation in our Legislature of the communities recognized in the Constitution. Unless we can devise practical mechanisms to ensure adequate representation, many will not agree to bring changes resulting in the abolition of either the best loser system or the requirement to declare one’s ethnicity or religion when registering as a candidate for the elections.

Many sympathize with the lofty ideals of the younger generation who want to get rid of anything related to ethnicity in the political system and in society in general. We also sympathize with many of our senior citizens who have come to embrace this ideal at this hour, partly to exorcise the guilt of having benefited from it in the past, especially those who have been active politicians or those who can now comfortably, in a position of privilege without responsibility, cry from the rooftop against the system. But our greatest sympathy goes to the small number of genuine secularists, individualists, Marxists and other liberal-minded people who believe, like Professor Stanley de Smith, that ethnicity should not have had a place in our Constitution. This is in line with the British policy of divide-and-rule when they are themselves at the helm but of calling for unity when they leave.

Unfortunately, however much we sympathize and respect the broad spectrum of opinions regarding ethnicity in our political representation, at present we still believe that all the four communities should be represented in our Legislature.

All seem to admit that ethnic representation through the best loser system or other mechanisms has worked well up to the present and has ensured the legitimacy of our Legislature though some think that the time has come to get rid of it now. From a utopian and idealistic perspective this is a valid point. What is overlooked is that in spite of our stability, we are still groping towards nationhood and no one is sure whether ethnicity is a catalyst or a brake towards that ideal. The fact that the previous government introduced an equal opportunity law suggests we have not yet reached that destination, and more importantly hard empirical realities show that our policies have never been entirely free from ethnic considerations. There have been many compromises all along the way since independence; it is also true and paradoxically so that these very compromises have worked to minimize ethnic tensions in the political system.

We are still a long way from the complete elimination of ethnicity in our political representation. We have lived for almost two and half centuries with immense religious and ethnic diversities, and to believe that we can do without ethnic pluralism in our politician system is not only unrealistic but may in fact intensify the very tensions that we want to free ourselves from. The system has worked well to the satisfaction of the majority of our people that it may be dangerous to destroy something unless we can build something better in its place. Outright abolition in the name of some ideal form of citizenship when the notion of secularism and individualism is not yet sufficiently grounded in our culture is to invite disaster.

It is often pointed out that at municipal elections there is neither the best loser system nor does the ethnicity of candidates play such a big role. In Mauritius municipal elections are far less important than general elections and people are intelligent enough to know that the locus of power is not at local government but at central government. Even those who tend to think that the ethnicity of candidates is of little importance in the rural constituencies need to remember the horse-trading that takes place at the level of parties in the selection of candidates and the havoc it gives rise to.

Three points need to be further underlined before we conclude. In a multi-ethnic society, the more we ignore the aspirations of any particular group or ethnic community, the more is the proportionate crystallization of ethnic sentiments. Second, many have hoped that ethnic identity was a transitional phase and that loyalty to the nation would override all other sentiments: this has not happened and is not likely to happen in the near future. Third, ethnic sentiment is on the ascendancy as a political force in all countries whatever be their level of modernity; that is happening even in countries which until recently regarded themselves free from such divisive forces.

Finally, I prefer to support the view of an ethnic balance in our political system for the time being and adequate representation for all communities even when these are expressed in ethnic terms. I prefer that we continue for some time more to make compromises and accommodate the ethnic demands of the population rather than ignore our history and realities. I prefer to follow the path of Nelson Mandela who preferred to accommodate Zulu nationalism and so bring unity to South Africa.

* Published in print edition on 20 September 2019

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