Exercising Our Right to Vote

People already know who they are not going to vote for. The choice of who to vote for however remains a major question mark

By Mrinal Roy

General elections are a pivotal moment in a democracy. Power is returned back to the people who can freely exercise their sovereign right to vote to elect the MPs and government of their choice. The vote of the people is a powerful arbiter which determines the outcome of general elections. In so many instances in the political history of Mauritius, the voters in their collective wisdom have arbitrated general elections in a manner which unswervingly upholds the national interest and the values and ethos our independence was fought and built on, despite divisive stratagems to undermine the people’s vote. The right to vote must therefore not only be valued but must also be exercised judiciously. Abstention should not be an option.

Universal suffrage or the right to vote for all adult citizens after the age of majority of 18 is a relatively recent democratic milestone. It is a key element of a vibrant democracy. However, the right to vote was initially restricted by governments to men and limited by such criteria as wealth, income, social status, race or ethnicity. Such arbitrary restrictions on the right to vote meant that only a minority of male adults could vote. Political power was therefore restricted to the eligible few.

Uphill battle

The fight for such a fundamental right as the right to vote has therefore been a long and uphill battle. For example, in the United Kingdom, it is only about a century ago in 1918 that all adult men obtained the right to vote through the Representation of the People Act of 1918. However, age and other restrictions curbed the voting rights of women. It is only under the pressure of the women’s suffrage movement for equal voting rights that women were granted the same voting rights as men with the enactment of the Equal Franchise Act of 1928.

In the United States it is only as from the 1960s that, as a result of several US Supreme Court rulings under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the right of ‘one man, one vote’ was extended to all Americans including African Americans through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite the enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1870 aimed at assuring the right to vote to American citizens, African Americans living in the former southern Confederate states in the US had been denied their right to vote after 1877 through a variety of barriers such as literacy tests or poll taxes applied in a discriminatory manner as well as through violence and intimidation. Following a women suffrage movement in the United States, the US ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920 which guaranteed the right to vote to women.

In Mauritius, it must be remembered that the right to vote to all citizens was obtained through arduous struggle against the combined might of the colonial authorities and the reactionary forces averse to the idea of universal suffrage. Universal suffrage was therefore rabidly resisted by the reactionary forces in the country through a scaremongering and patently communal campaign conjured to block the extension of the right to vote to all adult citizens. The rising clamour for constitutional change by the political leaders at the time and the people led to the introduction of a new Constitution in 1948 providing for literacy franchise and the 1948 general elections won by the Labour Party.

Despite the approval of a motion tabled by the Labour Party led by Guy Rozemont, by a majority of MPs in the Legislative Council in 1953 for a new Constitution which would enable the people to have though universal suffrage greater political control over their future, discussions with the Colonial office dragged on. Divisive politics were used by those opposed to universal suffrage to create a wedge among the people and the common man. It is in this particular context that Proportional Representation (PR) was conjured and championed by the Parti Mauricien to bend the rules to thwart the people’s democratic will at general elections. This smacks so déjà vu! The Labour Party robustly opposed Proportional Representation. Confronted by the forceful opposition of the Labour Party, the Secretary of state for the Colonies was forced to scuttle PR and consequently removed it from the agenda of the Constitutional discussions with the UK government.

After nearly five years of procrastination, adult universal suffrage came finally into force in 1959. This game changing empowerment of the people through their sovereign right to vote and choose the future they want opened the way to the independence of the country in 1968.

No to abstention

The right to vote is therefore one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy. It was bequeathed to us as a result of difficult and protracted struggle by our parents. Abstention should be anathema. The British voters who abstained from the Brexit referendum vote in June 2016 and who are now picketing the UK Parliament in large numbers for a new referendum are rueing their decision not to have exercised their right to vote on a matter so crucial to their future. There are no second chances on matters of such importance such as a referendum to decide on whether the United Kingdom should remain or leave the European Union.

The list of candidates of the main political parties as well those of new parties and independent candidates seeking the support and vote of the electorate are now known. The die is now cast. In essence nothing much has changed. The leaders and the main candidates of the main political parties who have failed the country and been sanctioned and rejected by the electorate in the past are also unchanged. Despite the poor alternative choices offered to the people at each general election, the people have in every instance adjusted their vote according to the prevailing circumstances to determine the outcome of elections. Such a situation which has endured for too long has been very detrimental to the prospects of the country. This deteriorating situation has now come full circle. This cannot go on.

Sense of alienation

The job of a Prime Minister, minister or MP in a government is a serious business. It is not a job for the dilettante or every Tom, Dick and Harry given the ‘holy grail’ of a party ticket to contest the elections. For too long the leadership of the main political parties have had the gall to assume that the people will vote for whatever candidate they field. There is therefore a pervasive sense of alienation among the people towards the political class.

The future of the country and the young cannot be built without a new breed of politicians having the credentials, intellect, track record of experience and competence to chart out and implement innovative policies to grapple with and surmount the many challenges faced by the country. It cannot be built on poor governance, the replacement of meritocracy by nepotism and political appointments for the coterie or by undermining the government Establishment by political interference or the absence of transparency and accountability.

We cannot afford to waste another five years. If we want, as a nation, to build a significantly better future for our children and grandchildren, we need not only to exercise our right to vote but also choose the candidates we want to vote for at the forthcoming general elections on the basis of objective criteria. These criteria include their credentials, qualifications, intellect, standards of ethics, commitment of service to the people and their ability to contribute meaningfully to the advancement of the country and the well-being of the people. How many of the candidates fielded by the main political parties live up to these basic benchmarks?

Abject and abusive misuse

The political landscape a few weeks before the general elections is quite tell tale. It is clear that despite the diatribes and daily spin doctoring through the abject and abusive misuse of the publicly financed MBC-TV as a daily vehicle of propaganda under the watch of electoral Commission, the leader of the MSM is still deeply apprehensive of the challenge posed by the Labour Party and L’Alliance Nationale. There is also a certain paranoia about cross party voting as was the case in some specific constituencies in the 2014 general elections. There is also a patent air of desperation as he multiplies the electoral promises being blithely made to all and sundry against a backdrop of deteriorating economic fundamentals, weakening performances by the main sectors of the economy, a public debt which has peaked to 67.5% of GDP in 2019 and a lower IMF growth forecast of 3.7% for 2019.

The leaks of confidential bank statements submitted in trust by a commercial bank to the police and ICAC in the context of an inquiry, to the media in the midst of an electoral campaign blemishes the reputation of the country as a financial sector and its ability to securely safeguard the confidentiality of banking transactions and records. A rigorous inquiry must quickly be ordered to establish the source of the leaks so as to restore faith in the safeguards in place. It is unacceptable and irresponsible to draw political mileage from the leaks.

As regards the Labour Party, the tremendous latent popular support for the Party and what it fought and stood for in the early political history of the party, is hobbled by legitimate interrogations and questions requiring credible answers as well as a crippling unwillingness to induct new talent and intellect to reboot the party with the lofty ethos and values which were the hallmark of its seminal fight for the fundamental rights of people and independence. The MMM despite its tall claims of victory, as was the case after polling on the day of elections in December 2014, will play a limited role in the choice of the electorate.

Catch 22 situation

The country therefore faces a catch 22 situation. This situation has been created by the inability of the leaders of the main parties to step down and open up their parties to induct new blood and a new breed of politicians having the qualifications, credentials and commitment of service to the people to chart and usher game changing strategies to realize our loftiest ambitions as a nation. Politician cannot be a profession. Is it not therefore time to break loose from the straight jacket of a political system which has undermined the prospects of the country and the nation for too long?

People already know who they are not going to vote for. The choice of who to vote for however remains a major question mark. The people are fed up of bailing out a political class which has outlived its shelf life. There is also a building ire among the people to sanction the political class. Is it not also time to choose and vote for the talented young Mauritians who have taken the challenge to offer a credible alternative to the voters and present innovative new proposals for a better and resurgent new Mauritius? Our common future requires that we rock the status quo. Our vote has the power to do that.

* Published in print edition on 25 October 2019

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