“More irregularities cannot be ruled out. Constituency No 19 is an eye-opener

If other petitions reveal a pattern, the tide will start turning against the government”

Interview: Dharam Gokhool

* ‘In our electoral system based on the principle of First Past The Post, every single vote counts. Is not 73 one too many?’

* ‘There are many, like me, who are perplexed at the pin-drop silence of the Electoral Supervisory Commission.
Don’t they have anything to say about the recent anomalies found during the recount exercise?

The recount ordered by the Supreme Court in view of “the glaring and unexplained discrepancies in the Recapitulation of Votes form that are on record and point prima facie to mistakes in the counting process” in Constituency No 19. has revealed other discrepancies and what seem to be irregularities : missing ballots, the mysterious presence of a ballot of Constituency No.1 amongst those of No.19, the absence of the official stamp of the Electoral Commission on two ballots. If these elements may not constitute evidence of tampering at this stage, they are sufficiently serious to cause a police investigation to be carried out and will likely rekindle speculations about the validity of the whole electoral process.  Who should be held accountable for these discrepancies qualified by the Electoral Commissioner himself as “graves et très sérieux” and as an “acte illégal et malveillant”? And why is the Electoral Supervisory Commission, which after the 2019 general elections vigorously denied any irregularities surrounding the organization of these elections, is now keeping quiet? Dharam Gokhool, former Education minister, shares his thoughts on these issues in today’s interview. Read on…

Mauritius Times: Muvman Liberater leader Ivan Collendavelloo’s electoral victory over the MMM candidate Jenny Adebiro has been confirmed, though by a narrower majority, following the Tuesday’s recount. Does this bring a closure to the controversies surrounding the organisation of the last general elections, or does it raise more questions?

Dharam Gokhool: The decision of the Supreme Court for a recount in Constituency No 19 resulted from a petition filed by the legal team of Jenny Adebiro to contest the results obtained by Ivan Collendavelloo, due to alleged irregularities in the electoral processes. These irregularities were qualified by the judges as “glaring and unexplained discrepancies”.

The recount was supposed to provide answers and explanations to these highly disturbing “discrepancies”. Has it? Not at all. The 73 missing ballots, the unexplained, mysterious and coincidental presence of a ballot of Constituency No.1, the absence of the official stamp of the Electoral Commission on two ballots are sufficient tangible evidence to rekindle the wildest speculations about the validity of the whole electoral process.

What if instead of 73 missing ballots there were 500, would the recount still have gone ahead?

The recount exercise was precisely to correct the discrepancies found by the Supreme Court earlier due to the lack of reconciliation of the figures in the counting exercise in 2019. When the number of declared valid ballots did not tally with the number of ballots found in the sealed ballot boxes during the recount exercise, clearly a new discrepancy was found. Should not this new discrepancy have been resolved before proceeding with the recount?

We understand from press reports that the Jenny Adebiro legal team would be contesting the recount exercise and in fact they refused to attend the official declaration of the results of the recount. It is also noteworthy that the Judges mentioned in their judgement that “candidates or their election agents may, on completion of the counting, require the returning officer to have the votes recounted, or again recounted, and need in fact to be given a reasonable opportunity to exercise that right in between completion of the counting and declaration of the poll.”

Would anyone be surprised if a ballot of No 19 were to be found among the ballots of No1? Who knows what could have emerged from the Pandora’s Box if a full recount had taken place? Irfan Raman, the Electoral Commissioner, has himself deemed it fit and proper to label the new “discrepancies” as “graves et très sérieux” and as an “acte illégal et malveillant”. This one is worse that “la règle magique”!

The content of his statement to the media, his evasive replies to crucial questions, his body language and his fumbling of his papers all indicate a terribly disturbed state of mind.

If anything, the recount and its sequel have further thickened the veil of mystery around the electoral processes in Number 19 and, by extension, in the 2019 general elections. Trust in our electoral processes has been seriously undermined.

* It appears that Hon Collendavelloo himself would have expressed his disappointment at the twilight of his political career regarding the dysfunctions that exist at the level of our institutions. Coming from a former DPM, who has been at the job until the St Louis controversy and seen from within how things operate, he should know better, don’t you think?

I have personally known Ivan for many years. He was my “colistier” in the 1982 general elections for Constituency No. 15. He has a solid track record as a barrister. As an experienced and astute politician, he has his own credentials. I may not be in agreement with all his views and options, and I do hold my own opinion about the St Louis Gate alleged scandal, but I must single out Ivan’s seemingly principled stand in the Supreme Court not to oppose the recount and also his tactful and gentlemanly attitude towards Jenny and, last but not the least, his no-nonsense public statement with regard to the dysfunctioning of such important institutions as the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Supervisory Commission.

But let us not forget that Ivan is a lawyer/politician and has his own repertoire of theatricals to suit different circumstances and we need to guard ourselves from jumping to conclusions about his real motivations in agreeing to the partial recount.

However, it is to be noted Ivan’s seemingly principled stand was in sharp contrast to the partisan political statement of the Leader of the MSM, who missed a golden opportunity to remind those same institutions of their duties and responsibilities to the nation in matters of conducting elections in a transparent, fair and unblemished manner. He chose to take the posture of the leader of a political party rather than that of the Prime Minister of a Republic.

* Electoral Commissioner Irfan Rahman, who has enjoyed for most of his professional career an unblemished track record until the 2019 general elections, will call upon the police to investigate into the anomalies that have come to light during last Tuesday’s recount. Our understanding is that he wants the Returning Officer to be accountable for those anomalies. How do you react to that?

Just like in the Molnupiravir case, civil Servants are being targeted as scapegoats. Certainly, those found to be at fault must be taken to task. But why spare the political head?

The Returning Officer is certainly accountable for the discrepancies that have come to light, but that does that absolve Irfan Raman from his duties, functions and responsibilities under the constitution as Electoral Commissioner. Should he not come out clean? He has now an opportunity to do so as Electoral Commissioner in forthcoming electoral petitions for Constituencies Nos: 1, 15 and 17.

Institutional integrity, which Irfan Raman seems to be concerned about, is important. Indeed, he is right to be concerned about institutional integrity of which there seems to be a terrible deficit in many of our leading and strategic national institutions. But it is the lack of personal integrity that erodes institutional integrity. Institutional integrity cannot be dissociated for personal integrity; it is as simple as that!

In the same breath, there are many, like me, who are perplexed at the pin-drop silence of the Electoral Supervisory Commission (ESC). We still remember how members of the ESC at the press conference held just after the 2019 general elections vigorously denied any irregularities surrounding the organization of these elections. They even went to the extent of criticizing the opposition parties saying they were looking for lame excuses to challenge the elections and bring disrepute to the Electoral Commission and the ESC. Don’t they have anything to say about the recent anomalies found during the recount exercise?

* We now learn that there would also be the same issue of the figures in the Recapitulation of Votes form not adding up in Constituency No. 15, similar to what happened in No. 19. Another recount here, if ordered by the Court, might reveal even more anomalies. What’s your take on that?

It was the British philosopher David Hume who propounded the Law of Causality or Cause and Effect. He has argued that “every course of action has a specific and predictable effect.” And if we take into consideration that similar causes may result in similar effect, it stands to reason to assume that discrepancy in the recapitulation sheet and the revelations in the recount of Constituency No 19, may provide solid grounds for a recount in Constituency No 15.

But more significantly, since all the facts and figures relating to the general elections are in the knowledge of the Electoral Commission, and the Electoral Supervisory Commission, should they not come forward and help the cause of justice and allow truth to prevail?

I am always impressed by the Indian judicial system where Judges are known to walk the extra mile in the name of truth and justice. Like many, I have faith in the integrity of our judicial system. Let us put our faith and trust in our Honourable Judges.

* If some of the anomalies might appear small due to human error and/or are technical, there are others however that give rise to suspicions of mischief at some point in the election process. But wouldn’t it be dangerous if we were to lose confidence in the integrity of the election process and the related institutions?

The narrative of Irfan Raman is that the discrepancies may well be due to human error or technical error resulting out of human error. He has also argued that since the results of Constituency No 19 have not been altered substantially as a result of the recount, implicitly there is no need to be unduly worried. But he then goes on to concede that the discrepancies are “graves et très sérieux” and constitute an “acte illégal et malveillant”. Very strong words indeed!

The null hypothesis relate to the possibility of human error. Fair enough. But Irfan Raman should not discard the alternative hypothesis about the possibility of human intervention.

One of the queries that remains and will remain in the minds of many is about the 73 missing ballots. In our electoral system based on the principle of First Past The Post, every single vote counts. Is not 73 one too many?

Such unresolved discrepancies will not only make people lose confidence in our democratic institutions, if allowed to go unresolved; they will simply destroy the very foundations of these democratic institutions and our Republic.

* But it would take more anomalies to be detected in several other constituencies to point to a definite trend in how the last general elections were conducted or misconducted. We are not yet there, isn’t it?

There is a saying in Latin veritas semper praevalet meaning Truth Always Prevails. More irregularities cannot be ruled out. Constituency No 19 is an eye-opener. If other petitions reveal a pattern, public pressure will mount and the tide will start turning against the government. There is already a lot of rampant and palpable frustration building up in our society, politically, socially and economically.

But all this can be avoided if our Institutions wake up and our politicians show statesmanship. The ethos of professionalism in all our institutions, public and private, and an authentic political renaissance are the two important and essential pillars for a turnaround.

Our Courts of Law should avoid inadvertently reinforcing public perception of Justice being delayed. This feeling is very much present and quite strong. Undue delays will be tantamount to a denial of justice.

We should avoid a social explosion coupled with violence.

* Do you think the people really care about issues such as anomalies in the electoral process or electoral fraud, alleged scandals of various types, absence of good governance in the affairs of state? They might have more on their plate to care about than what the opposition would like to believe, don’t you think?

In a functioning democracy, people would voice out their grievances and dissatisfactions through different channels. They are not doing so for valid reasons. We have a government with a comfortable majority with a strong grip on most of our institutions. There is a fear factor.

The Opposition which should normally pose as an alternative to the Government in a democracy is scattered and does not yet present itself as a credible alternative and challenger.

Covid and Covid-related and inspired laws have seriously curtailed freedom of expression, gatherings and movements, and street demonstrations are fewer.

Social media and private radios have taken the relay for the expression of public grievances, but they are not representative of the full spectrum of public opinion and are therefore limited in their impact.

Lastly, people are resilient, but they do keep an account of government’s promises and track record. Whatever they have to express, they do it through the ballot box and they do know that general elections are not near.

Either by design or by default, they know what they have to do when the time comes. They have done it in the past and they will do it over again.

* In view of all these irregularities/discrepancies revealed in the election process, don’t you think it is high time to put the agenda of electoral reform back on the table?

Independence came in 1968 and then came the Republic in 1992. As a population we have travelled a long way, but not always together. Both our Constitution and our electoral system need a revamp. Many of the constraints towards nation building are to be found in these two political instruments.

We have all the ingredients to emerge as a vibrant, peace-loving, forward-looking, modern nation state. Very few realise the full potential of a genetically and culturally rich diversity which history and nature has bestowed upon us. Very few realise that the emerging challenges such as food security, climate urgency and sustainable development for a small island state depends upon the creativity and energy of one and all. But our present electoral system has an in-built divisive algorithm.

Time now to start a virtuous, transformational political cycle which will translate into reality the dream of the founding fathers of our freedom. It was their dream that we should live as “one people, as one nation, in peace, justice and liberty.”

The realization of that dream depends a lot upon a viable, robust, progressive and inclusive electoral system.

* As regards the Opposition, it’s not known whether the Labour Party-L’Entente de l’Espoir alliance is still on the cards; the leaders might have had second thoughts about it, but that leaves the field open for the MSM. What’s the best way forward for the Labour Party, according to you?

If I were to tender an advice to the protagonists in the scattered Opposition who are aiming to dislodge the present government, they must always keep in mind that our electoral system is based on the First Past The Post principle and a three- or four-cornered fight will benefit the outgoing government on many counts. MSM is betting on the division within the Opposition to remain in power.

Secondly, people especially the younger voters, are extremely allergic to politicians who squabble about positions and privileges before elections. This is a toxic and corrosive political message out of sync with current political discourse. Politicians need to get their act together and focus on people and their priorities. And lastly, they must start to win the hearts and minds of the people by taking firm commitments on issues that they will tackle as priorities once in power.

As regards the way forward for the Labour Party, let me say it loud and clear, Labour has a strong, capable and ethnically diverse and geographically representative Parliamentary Group which can be leveraged to give Labour a competitive edge over other political forces. But they must listen to the right voices.

* Published in print edition on 4 February 2022

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