The Imperative of a Referendum

This is a grave moment in the history of our nation. The fundamental rights our parents fought for and obtained during the struggle for independence risk being whittled away. Far from strengthening democracy, the electorate’s paramount right to vote and decide by referendum on any substantive changes to our Constitution is being usurped

After more than five months of convoluted negotiations, blowing hot and cold with frequent volte-face and contrived gamesmanship, the Prime Minister (PM) and the leader of the Opposition have finally concluded an alliance aimed essentially at ushering a new balance of power between the protagonists at the head of the State, to govern the country. To this end, they have by common accord announced that the time tested more than two-century-old Westminster Parliamentary system prevalent in Mauritius since independence, is being thrown overboard. It will be replaced after the elections by an untested system of government conjured and tailored by our self-proclaimed constitutional alchemists to suit their respective political swansongs at the helm of the country. We are told with smug pride that this unique government format being thrust on Mauritius is a hybrid of those of Cap Verde and Malawi laced with elements of the Presidential powers of the Indian, French and Turkish systems for good measure to assure the right dosage and balance of power. No kidding!

In truth, it is a convergence of interests between the PM and the leader of the Opposition that has cemented this alliance between the two leaders in spite of their having such divergent modus operandi and ideologies. Was there a common fear of sanction and defeat at the polls? The 30-30 tickets sharing never conceded by the PM before in previous election coalitions is tell-tale. The power sharing arrangement in essence panders to and arbitrates the interests of both parties. The alliance between the ruling party and its constitutional watchdog, the main opposition party undermines democracy as it, in essence, waylays the people’s prerogative at the end of a mandate to, if necessary, sanction those that have not delivered on their promises or assumed their constitutional roles with alacrity or breached their trust.

The contrived rhetoric to try to convince the people that the elaborately detailed new power sharing and balance between the President and the PM, posts they are themselves to be the first to occupy have nothing to do with their own interests but that of strengthening democracy in the country was neither convincing nor reassuring. At no point was there mention of first democratically seeking the views and approval by referendum of the related profound constitutional changes by the ultimate repository of all power in a democracy: the people.

On the contrary, taking the electorate and the people for granted as they presumably feel they can lead them by the nose to vote as per their diktats as sheep being led for shearing (or worse), they have arrogantly predicted a landslide 60-0. Such a scenario would as per their intent enable the alliance to obtain the three quarters majority to pass these disputed changes to our Constitution by the National Assembly without the due process of a referendum. Far from consolidating democracy, such a total grip over political power by an alliance of the two main political parties would do the exact opposite.

History will retain that the leader of the MMM has in statements made in press conferences wanted to have the proposed electoral reform and the legislation for a 2nd Republic voted into law by the National Assembly forthwith without first obtaining the necessary mandate for such drastic changes to our Constitution, the supreme law of the country, from the people through a dedicated referendum. On such an issue of national importance, the people cannot be short changed. First and foremost, a referendum on both these issues must be organised at the earliest instead of using the colourable device of embedding these proposed sea changes to our Constitution in the political manifestos of political parties or alliances at the forthcoming general elections.

Recipe for institutionalized instability

When the PM was voted in to power in a coalition against the MMM opposition alliance in 2010, the electorate certainly did not give him the mandate or the licence to overhaul the Constitution of the country to introduce Proportional Representation and a power sharing 2nd Republic in league with the leader of the MMM, the party which the majority of the electorate had voted against in the last two general elections.

The independence of the country was won on the basis of the present parliamentary electoral system which the electorate fully understands and masters and which best suits its national ethos. Are the proposed material changes to the electoral system and the Constitution in keeping with the ideals, values, objectives and dreams which our parents who fought and won independence bequeathed to us to protect?

It is evident that the proposed constitutional changes have been subordinated to the current unavowed imperatives of contracting a political alliance before the next elections rather than the interests of the people or of democracy. In its present form the 2nd Republic power sharing formula institutionalises a bicephalous system of Government having two poles of power headed by two leaders who have demonstrated fundamentally different ideologies in respect of inter alia policies re education, the welfare state, energy, more inclusive general policy framework or the systemic reform of the economy to do away with monopolies in diverse pillars of the economy to democratize entrepreneurship and enable the fair sharing of the rewards of growth and development. It is noteworthy that there was no mention of democratisation of the economy at the joint press briefing of the two leaders of the alliance. Is that a casualty resultant of the deal making or the power brokers behind it?

The latent mistrust between the two protagonists is evidenced by the tantrums associated with the multiple breaking down of negotiations and the necessity of a signed accord. Despite the setting up of a fire fighting joint committee to settle differences, the proposed bicephalous system of power is a recipe for institutionalised instability and institutional paralysis. Any constitutional change must be devised not solely to suit the specious terms of an opportunistic political alliance but to stand the test of time and to function in any political scenario in a perennial manner. It is clear that, as is most likely, in the absence of a similar alliance in future elections, political power will in the proposed 2nd Republic format invariably rest with the ruling party and in effect with the President. At a time when one of the fundamental changes required to strengthen our democracy is to limit, as in other democracies, the number of terms of office of the PM and the President, we are surreptitiously being corralled in and lumped in a Presidential system of government for 7 years, thus inviting the scourge of co-habitation prevalent in the French presidential system, without any mandate from the people. The proposed constitutional changes also unnecessarily add to electoral costs by holding presidential elections in addition to general elections.

Need to stop political interference and cronyism

In the list of powers attributed in the context of the power sharing alliance, it is appalling to note the array of nominations that must be approved by the President in consultation with the PM. Whilst one can understand that sensitive posts like the Cabinet Secretary, the Governor of the Bank of Mauritius or the Commissioner of Police have to be vetted by the Head of State, why on earth should inter alia Permanent Secretaries, Deputy Permanent Secretaries or other high public sector officials be equally vetted by the same political process?

In spite of assurances given this week that Assistant Permanent Secretaries which were to be included in this process will not be subjected to the above process of vetting before appointment, such political interference in the appointment of non sensitive senior posts of the civil service should stop forthwith. Any attempt to feudalize the civil service to the powers that be must be thwarted. It is not because some of these vetting procedures exist already that we should not review them to restrict them solely to genuinely sensitive posts to enhance confidence building in the appointment process.

The principle that the civil service is there to serve the Government in place provided their personal ideologies do not impact on their professional work, should be a sacrosanct rule. Regrettably this principle has been progressively corrupted through political interference, a condemnable culture of political profiling and political appointments which have dented and crippled the thrust of policy framing and decision making acumen of the civil service cadres and top brass. In a country which values and promotes excellence through education, the top cadres of the civil service should be strictly chosen on the basis of meritocracy by a competently manned and independent Public Service Commission as a result of a transparent selection exercise, the more so, as we now have the bulwark of the Equal Opportunities Commission. Such an approach would verily strengthen our democracy.

Similarly, with the 30-30 split of tickets in the alliance, there is real danger that as has been the case so many times in the past, the sidelined party faithful will be nominated in the fat cat jobs at the head of State institutions and companies or as Ambassadors at the expense of more competent and deserving Mauritian professionals or career diplomats. Such political tinkering will be disastrous at a time when the country is facing serious difficulties to brainstorm innovative strategies in the context of the persistent adverse fallouts of the international financial crisis, to hike growth, exports and upgrade the various services’ sectors up the value chain in a fiercely competitive market environment when we no longer benefit and are shored from rent from preferential trade agreements.

In the absence of a government programme, we are promised that the intent of the alliance is to transform Mauritius into a model country. This obviously begs the question of who will constitute the team of chosen politicians with the required professional competence and track record of sound achievements that will be entrusted with the task of steering and delivering on this promise.

Safeguarding the people’s fundamental rights

This is a grave moment in the history of our nation. The fundamental rights our parents fought for and obtained during the struggle for independence risk being whittled away. Far from strengthening democracy, the electorate’s paramount right to vote and decide by referendum on any substantive changes to our Constitution is being usurped. It is therefore imperative that the people lobby to demand that both the proposals for electoral reform and the 2nd Republic be first approved and mandated by a dedicated referendum prior to the elections before any process of legislation is envisaged.

Such a course of action would allay growing misgivings regarding the adherence to due process before bringing in such profound changes and more truly consolidate democracy as well as serve the larger interests of the nation.

* Published in print edition on 12 September 2014

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