Interview – Sada Reddi – Historian
“Rodrigues Elections: PR has made the system more democratically representative. Whether it makes for more stability will remain an open question’
* ‘The Best Loser system is here to stay. No one has come up with any solution which is acceptable to communities that benefit from that system’
Electoral systems are not perfect. They are called into question in the light of the kind of representation they produce in the National Assembly. Agendas differ among political parties and even among social groups. Some of these are driven exclusively with a view to secure power; others aim at producing more representative governments encompassing diverse interests; still others seek to exclude particular groups from the exercise of power. During the past decades since our Constitution was crafted as a compromise among parties represented at the Lancaster House Conference, many differences of views have spiked about its practical application to changing local realities and perceptions of fairness of the voting system. Is it that straightforward to go for alternative systems of representation in a complex country such as Mauritius? Sada Reddi, historian and former UoM academic, talks about some of the thorny issues relating to electoral reform…
Mauritius Times: Our electoral system has more or less served us well down the years except for the risks that the First Past The Post-system might again produce yet other heavily skewed 60-0 or 57-3 election results or depart sharply from pro rata parliamentary representation in terms of total votes scores – given the operating principle that the winner takes all. But there have been pressing calls since quite some time, especially in the wake of the Rodrigues Assembly elections, to revisit the system. Is it indeed necessary?
There is no doubt about that electoral system has served us well over the years, giving the country the necessary stability it requires to pursue its developmental goals in the post-independence period. But over the years it has created a number of frustrations in the electorate, among the parties and communities as well as some subgroups that constitute the Hindu community.
As far as the electorate is concerned, there is strong feeling among those who voted the parties which finally constituted the opposition after elections that they find themselves marginalized in the country. The parties which constitute the opposition also feel that the First Past The Post system does not reflect the votes of the electors, as for example the electoral results of 60-0 or the 57-3. There is also discontent among some within the Hindu community that they are not adequately represented in the Assembly.
For these three main reasons, all parties have, at one time or another, felt strongly the need for a reform of the electoral system to make it fair towards all the communities. It must be understood that we are not a homogeneous society, ours is a plural one composed of various communities, which claim representation in the Assembly as one would expect in a more inclusive democracy.
* The founding fathers of our Constitution voted in their majority against the introduction of Proportional Representation (PR) but instead went for the inclusion of Best Losers with a view to alleviating the fears of minority communities against the risk of non- or inadequate representation in Parliament in the face of the then Hindu community which then largely outnumbered the rest of the population. What was the rationale for the opposition to PR? Have the context and the circumstances changed to warrant a reform of the system?
At the time the Constitution was drafted, the main principles of electoral system were discussed at the Lancaster Conference of 1965 and the consensus was reached, after concessions made by all the parties concerned. The Labour Party was against proportional representation, but it agreed to the principle of reserved seats for minority communities. Labour had fought against PR in the 1950s and was still against it in the 1960s.
One of the recommendations of the Banwell Report for the inclusion of a form PR was also rejected. In the 1960s the fears came mainly from minority communities. There were also the fears of the Hindu community – which were not articulated – but could be interpreted as that of being reduced to a minority by the introduction of PR in the system – and further subdivisions could lead to its implosion.
The opposition party, the PMSD, was banking on this implosion to resist independence. In fact the subtle use of ethnicity and jatis by the parties opposed to the Mauritius Labour Party were employed with great subtlety to weaken the Labour Party, and by 1963, this device was notoriously successful in defeating Jay Narain Roy and Ramsoondar Joomadar in Grand Port-Savanne in 1953 and later Anauth Beejadhur and Harilal Vaghjee with the Parti Mauricien using the same strategy in urban areas.
At present, many of the large political categories have imploded – the General population, Creole community, Hindu community — and in the near future even the supposedly large jati categories will implode as they are all myths which have served their purpose with success for some time but will soon reach their sell-by date.
Given the demographic and social changes taking place in Mauritian society, one could say that, in the present context, majorities no longer exist; we are but a nation of minorities, as KherJagatsingh once said. In these circumstances, one could argue that a reform of the system is warranted.
* But fair minority representation was also buttressed with the device of constituency demarcation which has given rise to variations in constituency size. We thus have constituencies with 22,771 or 25,081 voters (Port Louis Maritime and PL East, and PL South and PL Central respectively) returning three (3) MLAs for the 2015 elections as against those with 61,744 (Savanne and Black River) or Pamplemousses and Triolet’s 61,347 voters also electing the same number of MLAs. Isn’t it fair and just that the issue of skewed constituency sizes be also addressed to ensure the principle of one-man-one-vote be fully operationalised should PR be seriously contemplated for inclusion in our electoral system?
The electoral boundaries were worked out at the Lancaster conference of 1965 and there was consensus about the electoral boundaries based on compromise by all parties to reach a balanced representation for all communities. All parties were satisfied, given the fact that they focused on the number of elected members rather than on population. This explains the variations in constituency size. However no one could predict how the electoral system would work in practice with any great precision, but generally each party or group was confident it could secure a majority.
It seems to me that the Labour Party and the Comité d’Action Musulman (CAM) had assumed that they would win a comfortable majority as they had also the support of the working classes and were satisfied with the new constituencies. The PMSD too were confident that they would obtain a majority with their strategy of dividing the Hindu community in mind. The British supported the electoral system, thinking that that none of the major parties would get a crushing majority and that they might have to accommodate each other to govern the country in the end.
On paper, the Independence Party would have won all the ten rural constituencies and PMSD all the 10 urban constituencies plus Rodrigues. But unexpectedly, PMSD lost La Caverne-Phoenix, Vacoas-Floreal and Port Louis North-Montagne Longue. It was these three semi urban constituencies, which gave the Independence Party its victory and Independence.
Today the discrepancies in size of the constituencies are very unfair; but it largely provides a fair representation of communities at national level, and electors were not viewed as individuals as belonging to communities. But to try to make the constituencies fairer in terms of population will cause an even greater problem than the one to solve. The constituencies are, in my opinion, best left as they are with some changes now and then. But a reconstitution of the constituencies will lead to the emergence of new artificial communities with claims which will also remain unsatisfied.
* We saw in the wake of the recent Rodrigues elections the overturning of the election results after the allocation of additional PR seats. Five additional seats were allocated to the MR-FPR alliance, none to the OPR – thus diluting a first round electoral victory of 10-2 in favour of the OPR (under the FPTP system) to a 10-7 majority (after the PR seat allocation). The thinned down majority of the Serge Clair-led OPR makes the latter vulnerable should some of its own members decide, in the absence of an anti-defection law, to cross the floor to the MR-FPR alliance of Nicholas Von Mally and Johnson Roussety. PR comes with its own risks, isn’t it?
The elections in Rodrigues brings up the eternal dilemma between justice and stability. In the eyes of many observers, PR has succeeded in its main objective of a fair and just representation of the electorate. It has made the system more democratically representative. Whether it makes for more stability of the political system will remain an open question.
It is as difficult to make an anti-defection system work as it is difficult to control election expenses. A member may not cross the floor. But even remaining in his party, he/she can create a number of problems for his party. He may become extremely critical of his own party and make himself a nuisance to the point the party may wish to expel him. We may have a law which compels the member to resign but parties, in government or not, are afraid of by-elections.
A very simple solution, depending on whether it is acceptable constitutionally, is to pass a law which deprives a member of his vote in the Assembly if he leaves or is expelled from the party on reasonable grounds.
* The view has been expressed by some legal minds that, with or without PR, if we want to introduce an anti-defection law into our electoral system, consideration should also be given to the definition of a “transfuge” (defector). Would Dr Raffick Sorefan or Dr Joomaye (formerly with the MMM) qualify as “transfuges” for having joined the MSM? Would Marie Claire Monty also be considered a “transfuge” for having decided to stay put (within the Lepep alliance) after her erstwhile party, the PMSD, decided to break away from that alliance and the MSM-led government?
Since there is no definition of “transfuge” in the electoral law, we may have to give some thought to it in the future. In the absence of any legal definition of “transfuge”, everyone has his own personal views of what is a “transfuge”. In the minds of the general public, anyone who has been elected on a ticket of one party or alliance and crosses the floor for whatever reason to join another party or alliance is a “transfuge”.
If we go by that popular definition, Dr Joomye and DrSorefan might be considered as being “transfuges”. But in the case of Marie Claire Monty, she could reasonably argue that she was elected in the eyes of the law on a ticket of that alliance and not that of the PMSD, regardless of any formal or informal arrangement among the parties in the alliance.
Finally it all boils down to a question of political morality, and members who cross the floor cannot claim moral high grounds. What applies to a member of the Assembly equally applies to a party: any party which crosses the floor to join the ranks of the government before the next elections can also be branded as a “transfuge”.
* But all of these Honourable Members (Dr Raffick Sorefan, Dr Joomaye and Marie Claire Monty) could have been tormented by their conscience or ideological ramblings to revisit their party allegiance, don’t you think? And that would have been quite legitimate, isn’t it?
I do not subscribe to the argument that such decisions are motivated by high principles, nor do I consider it normal for whoever crosses the floor not to realize that this may amount to betraying the voters who elected them.
At most one could have taken a more dignified route of remaining independent and not joining the alliance one fought against in the elections. Electors in these constituencies who elected their representatives view their vote as a trust in them and to use that for any other purpose amounts to a betrayal of that trust. And that cannot by any means be considered as legitimate.
* Another comment that has been made regarding the risk that may come about with the induction of PR and Party List candidates refers to the scenario whereby a party leader who puts in his candidature and whose party wins an overwhelming majority finds himself out of the Assembly in the event of his non-election in the FPTP-based first round, while his adversary, another party leader who figures only on his Party List but does not contest the election and is therefore not popularly voted by the people, getting into the Assembly thanks to the second round PR corrective. That does not seem fair and acceptable, isn’t it?
In our political traditions, the electorate votes for the leader of the party or alliance to be the next Prime Minister. So any system in which the leader or the next Prime Minister is not elected faces problems of legitimacy within both his party and the electorate. And this affects the development of the country in many ways.
A leader who has not gone through elections will feel insecure, will elicit little respect, evade difficult decisions, will lack the support of his party and will try to do the minimum so as not to ruffle up any feathers with the consequence that important decisions will not be taken resulting in a paralyzing instability and stagnation. So the electorate wants a leader who is legitimate, for political stability is the sine qua non for the development of a country.
* What do we do about the Best Loser system? It’s said to constitute an impediment to most if not all electoral reform proposals that had been envisaged in Mauritius, and one can well imagine, given its emotive content, that its abolition or even the proposition to have it subsumed in a new dispensation, which would provide for additional proportional representation seats that will complement the present 62 First Past the Post seats might prove a hard nut to crack. What’s your take on that?
The Best Loser system is here to stay. No one has come up with any solution which is acceptable to communities that benefit from that system. Those who do not benefit from the Best Loser system or that do not need it for the time being can shout on housetops and clamour for its abolition. But this insensitivity to the political concerns of some communities looks selfish and parochial. A political system should be inclusive and the abolition of the Best Loser system takes us away from political inclusion.
In the future one does not know how the Best Loser will evolve; one may even have specific Best Losers for parties in lieu of PR and other communities or parties may even benefit from it. May be instead of abolition one may well think in terms of even extending it for it serves to build confidence in the electorate and remove the mistrust, which at present remains the major obstacle to our development.
Every election we debate the same issue over and over again, and important economic and social issues receive scant attention. Do we debate enough about the need for a basic salary for all, portable pensions, affordable housing for all or food security for the population.
There are many people who want to abolish the Best Loser system because they view or seem to view Mauritian society as constituted of individuals and not social beings. This emphasis on the individual and on individualism takes its roots from Christian metaphysics which sees the individual ‘as self-contained creatures with natural qualities such as free will and self-determination and able to look after themselves and responsible for doing so.’
That’s the basis of liberalism and the market economy. The overwhelming majority of Mauritians have a different view of their society and any reform should not make any abstraction of Mauritian reality but it can move slowly towards a more secular form of representation depending on the evolution and aspirations of the Mauritian electorate.
* Any electoral reform should ensure that the system be made predictable, simple and equitable… Those were essentially the guiding principles of past electoral reform proposals. We may have missed out on the need for stability. Is that why they have not proved convincing?
We all agree that any electoral reform should respect these three principles but it is still difficult to make the reform highly predictable given that political behaviour is always dynamic. There are so many aspects of political behaviour on which nobody has any control. The electorate has always exercised its preferences in various ways – voting for party, personalities, ethnic and sub-ethnic groups or even abstaining or plumpering, that is concentrating his votes on particular candidates across groupings or parties.
The unpredictability that is inherent to any electoral system is breeding ground for instability and may be further exacerbated by other changes; so, any reform must proceed cautiously and piecemeal for the risks of instability are always present. Reform proposals must be communicated to the public and time allotted for debates and discussions. Any reform using a top-down approach can readily be resisted by the people, especially if it lacks clarity.
* Electoral reform could address the issue of making political parties more democratic in their internal functioning and decision-making processes – as well as addressing another sore point, notably control over party finances and the urgent need to weed out for good the root of corruption of political parties which corporate financing gives rise to. Tall orders, would you say?
It is indeed a daunting task for parties to accept reforms in which they have some interests, but sooner or later these reforms will become inevitable if the electorate begins to exercise pressure on them. The problems of internal functioning and decision-making can easily be solved by a party constitution, which respects democratic principles and is registered with the Registrar of Associations. We can have a law which bans parties which have not been registered. Electoral reforms could address the issue of making political parties more democratic in their internal functioning, accountability and decision-making processes.
As regards party finances, this is even more difficult as this requires transparency. Ways and means have to be found to make the financing of parties transparent and the law can certainly help to a certain extent. Concerning electoral financing, this could prove even more challenging. How do we control someone with no explicit political affiliation who organizes a mega dinner in favour of a candidate or party or finances the candidate’s or party’s publicity campaign for free? But, in spite of difficulties, a start has to be made to rectify matters which have gone wrong.
* There are also a number of important and fundamental issues that need to be thoroughly debated like, for example, the duration of the mandates of the President and Prime Minister respectively, the ‘renouvellement de la classe politique’. What do you think?
All these issues are important and should be debated by the public. The renewal of the political class can only be left to the parties once they have been democratized and, ultimately, to the electorate. One cannot prevent anybody from becoming a candidate though one may restrict the duration of the mandate of Prime Minister, a minister or of member of the Assembly. Some of these issues are complex. Besides changes, we need to create more political awareness among the electorate — for an enlightened electorate is the best safeguard for democracy to function
* At the end of the day, electoral reforms are also about power politics. Ensuring government stability, promoting fairness and fair gender representation, fostering broad based socio-demographic inclusion are all well and good, but the politician would want any reform to serve the political interests of his Party. We might therefore end up stuck at the starting block for a long time, isn’t it?
Politics is about power and the power to do good things in the interests of the country but also to feather one’s nest. The choice is a moral one. At one level it is up to the politicians and the parties, and unfortunately in Mauritius it is a zero sum game for politicians as well as for the electorate, a game of winners and losers.
Politicians would want reforms only to buttress their power and since they are in competition, they would not do anything that undermines their own position. This is why reforms have been reduced to mere rhetoric or a few specifics in their interests. This is the situation in Mauritius and has been so in the past.
The report of Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo after the elections of 1976 was never made public and did not have any follow up. However there is hope, firstly, elections do bring changes. Secondly, the political cycle means the old have to yield their places to the new ones and therefore it is for the younger generations – the under 40s – who have to press for changes and implement the changes they want. Already the present Assembly has a majority of new faces and the number will certainly increase at the next elections and the number will even be greater if the electorate makes clear its aspirations and acts to implement them. Hope is with the young and the new generation.