MPs Cannot Be Judge and Party

Matters of The Moment

Whether it relates to electoral reform, the financing of political parties, urgent measures to be taken to drastically cut CO2 and other greenhouse gases emissions…, the people must always be ready to raise their voices in protest against any wrong. Not to do so is to allow greed and short-termism to shortchange democracy, humanity and the world

By Mrinal Roy

Finally, reason seems to have prevailed as the French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe decided this week after more than two weeks of unrest by the yellow vests (Gilets Jaunes) to suspend the decried fuel tax hike. In contrast, at a time when the children of the world are demanding that the leaders of the planet, assembled as from this week for the COP24 conference in Kotowice in Poland, drastically cut the CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions of their countries to save their future, the local politicians walled in their own ivory tower are bent on changing the electoral system and assuring that political parties are financed at the expense of hundreds of millions of Rupees of public funds. MPs cannot be judge and party on fundamental matters relating to our democracy such as electoral reform or the core principles underpinning our democracy which must remain the sole prerogative of the people at all times.

The foundations of our democracy are being tested. The prevailing electoral system is one of the fundamental cornerstones of democracy in a country. The government decision to bring profound changes to the electoral system which has stood the test of time without first seeking the views and formal approval of the people is a serious breach of trust and governance. This is also contrary to L’Alliance Lepep’s electoral programme pledge that ‘there will be mandatory referendums on all crucial matters concerning the State.’

The people’s prerogative

The electoral system is the bedrock of democracy in the country. It can only be changed by the people and certainly not by politicians who all have an axe to grind. A handful of 52 MPs comprising some who have rabidly championed proportional representation (PR) for decades cannot arrogate to themselves the right to decide for the 923,316 voters of the country or the people. This is the more so as the proposals are tabled by a nominated Prime Minister who has not been chosen and mandated by the people to govern, let alone usurp the people’s supreme prerogative to decide on any changes to the electoral system. Without the consent of the people, MPs cannot rubber stamp the decried and flawed changes proposed which could be irreversible as it will be significantly more difficult to mobilize in an enlarged National Assembly the 64 MPs required to undo the contested changes.

The electoral reform tabled by government is fundamentally flawed. It basically increases the number of MPs from 70 to a maximum of 85 at the expense of the public Exchequer for no valid reason. While all 70 MPs under the present system have to stand for general elections and except for best losers, be elected by the people, some 22 MPs would under the proposed electoral reform be nominated to sit as MPs from a PR list without having participated in the general elections and elected by the people. It sets the clock back to colonial days when people were nominated to the Legislative Assembly without facing the democratic test of a plebiscite at the polls. Are the proposals aimed at providing a retirement scheme for party apparatchiks, ageing politicians or the coterie at public expense? It is a tremendous waste of taxpayers’ money.

The aggregation of votes to determine each eligible party’s share of the PR seats thwarts the vote of the electorate. Why should the high votes cast in favour of a losing candidate X benefit somebody on the PR list who does not even stand for elections? The upshot of the disputed electoral reform is to ensure that any reduction in the majority obtained by the winning party through the allocation of PR nominees is made good through the allocation of additional MP seats. The overriding objective is to ‘re-establish the majority obtained by the winning party or party alliance over the other eligible parties or party alliances’ at all times. Then, why on earth should the already high number of MPs be artificially increased through such a rigmarole at public expense?

This reform proposal is a retrograde step backwards for democracy in the country.

Similarly, what is the logic in increasing the number of MPs for Rodrigues which is the third smallest constituency of the country to three in a context when the wide disparity of electors per constituency in the country is being decried as people clamour for a fairer representation of MPs per constituency? Furthermore, Rodrigues is autonomously administered by the team of commissioners of the Rodrigues Regional Assembly since 2002.

Balance of rights

The electoral system prevailing since independence was anchored on some core principles agreed by all parties to strike the right balance during the constitutional debates at the 1965 London Conference. These relate to majority rule based on the First Past The Post electoral system prevailing in the best democracies of the world such as the UK, the US and India as well as a Best Loser System couched in such a way as to assure adequate communal representation while in parallel ensuring that the absolute majority obtained by the winning party is protected.

The present contested electoral reform proposal therefore upsets the apple cart, undermines the balance of rights enshrined in the Constitutionand irresponsibly burdens the public Exchequer with the unnecessary costs of decried nominees to the National Assembly.

Opacity

Similarly, the government proposal to finance political parties from public funds is preposterous and unacceptable. The country knows that the assets owned and the finances of the main political parties are shrouded in opacity. Substantial and ostentatious spending during elections, diverse party activities and weekly press conferences are evidence that the main political parties enjoy an extremely comfortable financial situation. This opacity amidst flagrant signs of lavish party spending undermines democracy. As a first step, should political parties not all come out clean with the present state of their finances and assets portfolio?

A rigorous party funding regulatory framework must therefore be set up to ensure that all political parties have a registered legal identity and administer their party funding including those in kind through transparent records and accounts which are kept and audited by professional accountants. Strict rules of transparency and accountability must also ensure that party funding does not become a source of corruption, leverage and lobbying or money laundering. It is however essential that the system of rigorous control and rules applicable to party funding and expenditure are framed by specialists in the field rather than politicians and MPs with an axe to grind. We above all want to avoid situations such as Malaysia’s ex-PM’s claim earlier this year that the cash hauls of some $44 million seized from apartments linked to him were donations from his friends and meant for his party’s election campaign.

An independent Electoral Supervisory Commission must also be robustly armed with all powers necessary to rigorously oversee and police the system of party funding to assure total transparency and accountability and strict compliance with rules. It is equally important that the register of all donors and the audited finances of each party be available for verification by the public.

A party is defined by its democratic values, ideology, ethos, code of ethics, guiding principles as well as the transparent manner it functions in the eyes of the public. The prime approach towards party financing should be to encourage minimum expenditure generally and to avoid unnecessary razzmatazz. Bling does not garner votes.

Transparent and accountable party funding must also go hand in hand with the democratization of parties. Without internal democracy in the choice of leaders, party office bearers and policy debate, there cannot be full transparency and accountability.

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Climate change: Time is running out

Thousands of Australian children skipped school this week in defiance of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, to protest for greater action on climate change. COP 24 is being held in Kotowice in Poland in a grim context. The signs are not good. The report of the United Nations weather agency, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) issued on 22 November revealed that ‘levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached another new record high’ and that ‘without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change, sea level rise, ocean acidification and extreme weather will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth.’

It will be recalled that in October, a report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had warned that global temperatures could rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by as early as 2030, if the current levels of greenhouse gas emissions are not drastically cut by principally the most polluting countries of the world which are China, US, Europe, India, Russia and Japan. Time is running out.

In parallel, governments must also promote and provide competitive alternative sources of green or renewable energy to people.

It is obvious that the dire threats to our planet require much more robust measures to drastically cut CO2 and other greenhouse gases emissions. According to the IPCC recommendations, global net emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach “net zero” around 2050 in order to keep global warming around 1.5 degrees C. Will the world leaders take the concrete and potent actions necessary in the face of such crying scientific evidence, despite powerful corporate lobbies, to save the planet and the natural world upon which we all depend?

At a time when coal is widely seen as the main culprit behind global warming, local politicians were last week still lobbying during their press conference for energy production from principally coal fired plants masked behind a dwindling amount of bagasse for which the planters receive a pittance.

Scientific evidence shows that coal emits nearly twice the amount of carbon dioxide than from natural gas and nearly one and a half times more than from fossil fuels. Coal tops the chart in the hierarchy of the energy producing combustibles emitting by far the highest amount of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere. The priority in the battle against the disastrous consequences of climate change should be to jettison coal, the biggest culprit behind global warming instead of irresponsibly nurturing and protecting it.

This week, Royal Dutch Shell linked executive pay with carbon emissions reduction targets, following pressure from investors. The world is choking. Corporate interests are belching CO2 in the atmosphere. Whether it relates to electoral reform, the financing of political parties, urgent measures to be taken to drastically cut CO2 and other greenhouse gases emissions to save the planet for our children and future generations, the people as the custodian and final arbiter of what is right for the multitude must always be ready to raise their voices in protest against any wrong and make cogent proposals to set things right for the common good. Not to do so is to allow greed and short-termism to shortchange democracy, humanity and the world.

Is it not time for a global Gilets Jaunes protest movement to clamour for urgent actions on climate change in order to save the planet, our homeland, from impending disaster?


* Published in print edition on 7 December 2018

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