A Step Back for Democracy

Electoral Reform Proposals

Mauritius cannot therefore become a guinea pig for experimentation with our electoral system with a hybrid system when the major and several century old democracies like the U.K. or the U.S.A. who elect their representatives through the FPTP system have not done so

The electoral reform proposals contained in the White Paper entitled ‘Modernising The Electoral System’ tabled by Government on 24 March 2014 concern all of us and in particular the more than 900,000 electors in Mauritius. It cannot be the preserve of a few political leaders only.

Let it be said from the outset that its most disputable reform proposal is the insidious introduction of Proportional Representation (PR) into our electoral system to resolve the legal mess the Best Loser System (BLS) has been put into as a result of the 1982 Government decisions to end the collection of community based data in the official census and to make a related amendment to the Constitution. It must be clearly stated that it was the ill advised 1982 Government’s decision to replace the phrase ‘the results of the latest published official census’ by ‘the results of the 1972 census’ in the Constitution which subsequently exposed the Best Loser System to litigation and censure by the Supreme Court and the United Nations Human Rights Committee. One of its key elements for computation having been hobbled, the Best Losers were as a consequence determined on the basis of outdated 1972 census figures which were rightly no longer deemed, as stipulated in the Constitution, ‘fair and adequate’.

The crying lesson to be learnt is that we should be extremely careful before we tamper with the provisions of our Constitution as it has been the anchor of the stability and cohesion in the country for more than four decades. The BLS is therefore in limbo and for all intents and purposes scuttled. It is therefore objectionable that the BLS legal plight is being used as a Trojan horse to introduce PR in our political system and that such a radical sea change from our time tested prevailing First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system in place since independence is being proposed without a process of referendum to obtain a public mandate.

If the intent is to resolve the BLS legal imbroglio, then this should be done on its own without lumping it with such a controversial and disputed issue. This can be done by obtaining a national consensus to put an end to the BLS which initially was to be a temporary and short-lived measure.

Trading the transparent and precise for the arbitrary

It should be flagged that the BLS was couched in the specific context of compromise in the run up to independence in such a manner as to cause, in its application, minimal ‘distortion’ to the outcome of the general elections based on the FPTP electoral system. Thus, the method of determining the second set of 4 BLS nominees of the 8 allowed also takes into consideration best losers from the most successful party at the polls to correct/mitigate any imbalance caused by the distribution of the first four nominees, ‘so as not to reverse the choice of the electorate’ (White Paper – Chapter 8). In the nine general elections since independence, barring landslide victories, the winning Party/coalition obtained at least 4 of the Best Loser seats and the main losing Party/coalition obtained between 2 and 4 Best Loser seats; the remaining seats going to other Parties. The BLS provisions are embedded in the first Schedule of our Constitution. As a consequence, any ‘distortion’ caused by the BLS to the sovereign choice of the electorate in all the elections since Independence and the majority of seats obtained by the winning Party/coalition has been minimal.

The White Paper comes forward with the artifice of ‘subsuming’ the BLS into the proposed PR based electoral reform proposal aimed at creating ‘a fairer balance between the share of votes polled and the share of seats obtained’. To this end, the White Paper proposes at least 16 PR nominees to be apportioned among the political parties having obtained ‘a threshold of 10% of votes’, ‘on the basis of votes obtained by unreturned (defeated) candidates’ at the polls and to be chosen after the elections from a Party PR list submitted at latest by Nomination Day to the Electoral Commission.

In contrast to the transparent and independent manner the BLS nominees are determined by the Electoral Commission on the basis of precise and verifiable statistical data available to all, the White paper proposes an arbitrary and opaque system. The PR proposal being canvassed is also contrary to the BLS implicit principle that the choice and vote of the electorate must remain paramount and should not be watered down. The PR proposal of a minimum of 16 nominees tampers with and causes a significant erosion of the majority voted to the National Assembly at the general elections by vox populi. It bends the rules and tips the scales in a manner akin to the iniquitous and decried system of unelected nominees appointed by the British Governor to the Mauritian Legislative Council in the colonial era prior to independence to create ‘balance’ on the back of the people’s will.

As a nation we have to ensure that any electoral reform proposals made meets the test of transparency, objective criteria, independent determination, fairness and more importantly does not thwart or water down the sovereign and paramount will of the electorate.

The PR Trojan horse

The White Paper electoral reform proposals are basically a variant of the initial proposals of the 2001/02 Sachs Commission. More importantly, it avoids the more pertinent issues that first need to be addressed and reformed in our democracy. Its argumentation is flawed, effete, very often based on syllogisms and smacks of the French adage ‘Qui veut noyer son chien l’accuse de la rage’.

Apart from proposing to undemocratically water down the majority obtained by FPTP based elections, the PR reform proposal has various other shortcomings. It is the Party leaders who already wield absolute power in the main political parties in Mauritius, who will control and decide on the three key elements of the PR reform proposal namely establish the PR list (either a closed rank based list or a closed unranked list in alphabetical order or a combination of both methods), decide on double candidacies and choose the persons from the PR list who will sit as Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) within the seat allocation attributed to the Party. Double candidacy allows the flexibility to decide on which candidates will appear in both the constituency and on the PR list or to field the same candidates in both lists. Double candidacies and the PR list provide in case of defeat and disavowal at the polls a foolproof insurance policy and safety net (far better than in the BLS system) for leaders of parties and their front bench members, however unpopular, to get into the National Assembly through the back door. Worse, outsiders such as the party faithful or party fund providers could be chosen by the Party leader to sit as Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) from the PR list and may become Ministers without contesting the elections.

Furthermore, the reform proposals recommend that the allotment of PR seats be effected ‘on the basis of votes obtained by unreturned candidates’. According to the ‘unreturned votes elect’ formula, the Parties are allocated seats for PR nominees according to their share of votes of defeated candidates (unreturned candidates) nationally. In simple terms, the euphemism of using the term unreturned candidates cannot hide the fact that we are talking about using the votes tally of candidates disavowed by vox populi in the present democratic FPTP system of voting, to determine the allocation of at least 16 PR nominee seats to the National Assembly among the eligible political parties. What a warped logic?

The arbitrary eligibility threshold whereby Parties have to obtain 10% of the votes in effect ring fences the sharing of PR nominees solely among the main political parties in Mauritius. The leaders of the few eligible parties will therefore wield full control over the whole PR system being proposed and have wide discretionary powers which would be exercised according to their own subjective and arbitrary criteria. Party leaders will basically be allowed to play ‘almighty’ on all these key elements of the PR proposal and have an even stronger grip on the Party and its members. Such a blanket authority does not strengthen democracy nor does it meet the test of good governance or checks and balances and accountability to ascertain transparency of process as well as plural and fair implementation. It kowtows to the interests of Parties and their leaders rather than that of democracy and the sovereign rights of the electorate.

All these PR nominees will be entitled to the salary and perks of MNA’s and eventually their handsome pensions at the expense of the Exchequer. Is this the ‘historic step forward’ the political class has come forward with after four expert Commissions/reports and endless cogitations since 2001/02?

Vox Populi Vox Dei

Proportional Representation is an old gambit. The arguments for the First Past The Post system of voting versus Proportional Representation are well known and have been exhaustively debated ad nauseam since the dawn of democracy. In the case of Mauritius, it was canvassed assiduously by the reactionary forces to thwart the people’s will and tip the scales in the constitutional debates at the London Conference leading to independence and was robustly quashed.

The only tenuous and often used argument rehashed in the White Paper to justify a dose of PR in our electoral system is grounded on the facile averment that ‘the First Past The Post (FPTP) while ensuring stability, has been criticized as insufficiently proportionate to the share of votes secured by the political parties’. The authors of the Paper justify the PR argumentation by citing the example of the landslide victories in the 1982, 1995 and 2000 general elections when the defeated coalitions/Party could not elect any candidate in 1982 and 1995 and only 2 elected Members in 2000 and lamenting that these poor results were not in proportion to the polls they obtained at these elections.

This begs the question of whether there is an abject (and undemocratic!) fear syndrome amongst politicians in respect of routs in general elections, which underpins the building consensus among the main political parties around the PR based electoral reform proposals. There are in fact very valid and rational reasons underlying all the landslide victories in the 1982, 1991, 1995 or 2000 general elections. All these elections were won in instances when the two main and most popular parties at the time of the elections formed an alliance for the purposes of wresting power.

These were MMM-PSM (against PAN) in 1982, MSM-MMM (v/s LP-PMSD) in 1991, LP-MMM (v/s MSM) in 1995 and MSM-MMM (v/s LP-PMSD) in 2000. It was not a one Party election victory but that of an alliance encompassing a much broader spectrum of opinion, which by virtue of its nature not only reflects the diversity of plural Mauritius but also (probably more readily) takes on board different sensibilities of Members from the coalition Parties, on policy matters. However, the differences in political culture have repeatedly led to political splits of such coalitions during their term of office. How can a democracy tinker with its electoral system and introduce PR to ‘correct under representation of the Opposition’ in these extreme scenarii engendered when the Opposition and one of the main political Parties of the country driven by the expediency of wresting power decide to join hands to form an alliance commanding a dominant position at the polls which results in landslide victories?

In the 1987 and 2010 elections when the two main opposing coalition parties ran as in normal circumstances a two Party race, the elections were obviously more closely fought. Anyone familiar with the local musical chair of alliances among the main political parties and their relative weight in the electorate at the time of the elections can fully understand the rout of the respective defeated Parties in the respective elections. The other factor is the % swing in the electorate’s vote which itself reflects the degree of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of the voters in respect of the ruling Government or the Opposition. Statistically, a shift of some 3%-7% of the vote in favour of a dominant coalition contesting the general elections will result in landslide victories as the ones in 1991 and 2000, if we use the benchmark of 49% of the votes obtained by the winning coalitions in the more closely fought 1987 and 2010 elections. When the dissatisfaction and ire of the electorate towards the ruling government is more acute, the % swing of the vote against the government would be higher as in 1982 and 1995 causing the debacle of the government or the victory of the Opposition more pronounced.

We all remember that feelings ran so high in some of the landslide victories against the losing side and their leadership that some voters protested against their nomination under the BLS. Furthermore the wide disparity in the number of electors among the constituencies, the pattern of voting, the distribution of seats obtained by each party among the constituencies, the swing vote in traditionally captive constituencies as well as the margins of victory per constituency affects the discrepancy between number of seats won and % polls obtained.

At the time of general elections in a democracy, power is returned back to the people for them to assess government action and use their vote to either vote them back to power or sanction them by voting for the Opposition. In our vibrant democracy we have so many times witnessed a change of power during general elections with each one of the major parties suffering resounding defeats at the polls. This is healthy for our democracy as governments are put on their toes to innovate and deliver to earn the people’s endorsement at the polls or face censure and defeat. In the 9 elections since independence, our electoral system and the people’s vote have led, except for the particular circumstances of the 1976 elections, to strong governments with a comfortable majority to govern the country decisively as well as a healthy rotation of power among the main coalitions or variants thereon contesting the elections. Furthermore, the need to field 3 candidates per constituency has naturally assured an inclusive representation of all components of our plural society in order to harness a broader based popular support to win the elections.

Any voting system must be simple to understand for the voter and be able to provide him with a clear idea of the outcome of his voting. A complex system having a two-layered entry to the National Assembly whose outcome is more difficult to fathom for the voting masses weakens our democracy, undermines voters’ rights and thwarts the democratic process. By trying to be ‘fair’ to the disavowed Parties at the polls, we cannot conjure a system of reform which is unfair to and confusing for the most important element of any democracy, the electorate. The First Past The Post voting system in operation in Mauritius from the outset has provided unequivocal clarity to the voter.

Most of the important democracies in the world such as the United Kingdom, India, the United States, Canada, Malaysia as well as most Caribbean countries and major African counties such as Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia or Swaziland use the FPTP electoral system. In all these countries voters have elected governments at each general elections or ousted ruling ones without any état d’âme about the discrepancy between the number of votes polled and the number of seats obtained or ‘wasted votes’. The outcome of the recent French municipal elections which caused a heavy defeat of the Socialist Party proved that again last week.

In this context, it should be underlined that Guy Forget, President of the Mauritius Labour Party wrote in a reply to the Secretary of State for the Colonies dated 25 October 1956: ‘It is further the conviction of the Parliamentary Group that Proportional Representation in the local context will prevent the normal development of the country on the basis of a Mauritian entity, aggravate and perpetuate divisions among Mauritians on racial and religious lines and thus we and our fellow members of the Labour Party consider it our duty to prevent…’ ( White Paper – Chapter 1). The proponents of the electoral reform proposals are arguing the exact opposite in the White Paper.

What if?

What if despite model based simulations, the contrived PR based mechanism aimed at striking the ‘right’ balance between stability and the shaving of the majority voted in by the electorate by a dose of PR nominees goes wrong and leads to a different pattern of voting and higher risks of a hung National Assembly? What if it leads to the emergence of sectarian groups who enter into coalitions to meet the 10% eligibility threshold? The PR based reform proposals could therefore engineer the fracture of the nation. Amoebas like all organisms are known to adapt to change to manage obstacles. Will we able to undo the system if we want to? We must remember that if things go wrong it will be more difficult to obtain the required majority to undo the system? Mauritius cannot therefore become a guinea pig for experimentation with our electoral system with a hybrid system when the major and several century old democracies like the U.K. or the U.S.A. who elect their representatives through the FPTP system have not done so.

Complicit silence

Barring a few lone but incisive criticisms, there is a deafening silence in the country in respect of such undemocratic proposals which make a mockery of public accountability, transparency of process and the sacrosanct principle of vox populi endorsement of candidates before they become eligible to serve in the National Assembly. The reform proposals actively canvassed by the main political parties are thus a step backwards for democracy in our country. Far from getting rid of communalism in the country, the method used to choose PR nominees will entrench it further as political leaders play ‘god’ and arbitrate on socio and communal grounds akin to the scientific manner the 60 candidates contesting the general elections are chosen according to predetermined socio-ethnic profiles matching each seat of the 20 constituencies. There is a need for a radical change of the mindset of political leaders who swear by ethnic and communal balance whilst paying lip service to nation building and unity.

The complicit silence of the elected Members of the National Assembly as they tow the Party line on such an important issue undermines the people’s trust and is an indictment of the present political system and the political class. There is a deep sense of alienation of the people towards the political class. More than ever the country certainly does not need more MNA’s but more able, altruistic and competent ones fully respectful of their bond of trust with the electorate. It is high time for the emergence of a new generation of talented young political leaders and politicians driven by ideals of nation building, service to the nation and committed to the establishment of a better socio-economic and political order for all.

Priorities for strengthening our democracy

There are much more important issues to be addressed first if we are to genuinely reform the electoral system and strengthen our democracy. Instead of adopting a piecemeal and selective approach, it is important that we take a holistic view of reform. It is an established fact that Mauritius has a significantly higher ratio of MNA’s to its population than that in major democracies such as the USA, UK, India or France. As pointed out, quality and ability of MNA’s rather than quantity should be the way forward. We should also envisage having a clearer definition of our rights in the Constitution akin to the American Declaration of Independence.

It is also recognised that there is a wide disparity in the number of voters per constituency. This is unfair and creates distortions. Whilst recognising that the redesigning of constituencies is a complex exercise, there would be merit in seeking a public mandate to adjust as an interim measure and within a comprehensive package of reform measures the number of elected MNA’s in proportion to the number of voters per constituency whilst keeping the total number of seats in the National Assembly unchanged, bearing in mind that the 4 largest constituencies having more than 50,000 electors have about twice the number of voters in the three smallest constituencies. It is more important that we think of the interest of the voter and ensure that he exercises his vote in a fairer way rather those of the Opposition Parties sanctioned by the electorate. Should we not also envisage single Member constituencies for the future?

As is the case in major democracies such as the USA, France or UK, electoral reform should also define the number of terms of office for the Head of Government and the Head of State, establish rules to ensure more transparency in the manner political parties are organised, financed and candidates for elections are chosen. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Bill Clinton are having great careers post retirement. There is also a need to separate religion from politics. Crossing elementary rules of propriety, a leading politician was recently seen on TV making statements in favour of the electoral reform at a ceremony on the occasion of Ugadi! The issue of crossing of the floor during a mandate must be addressed as the elected MNA who crosses the floor breaches the pact of trust between him and the electors who voted for him on the party ticket. There cannot be as suggested in the White Paper two rules applicable.

As regards women in politics, it should be highlighted that in most democracies having the highest percentage of women MP’s in the world such as Sweden, South Africa, Seychelles, Norway, Mozambique, Germany or New Zealand, women have joined politics voluntarily and not through legislation. Why should we legislate to reserve quotas for women? Are the political parties not democratic enough to voluntarily choose a high proportion of able women as candidates and as in other major democracies support them to occupy the highest positions of the State? The election of Anne Hidalgo as the first female Mayor of Paris last week is a case in point. However, it is evident that the political system must in parallel be fundamentally reformed as the sense of alienation towards politics is such that the most talented Mauritians, irrespective of gender, presently shy away from politics.

What do Bholanath Chatturgoon diligently tending his cucumbers in his field and Arthur Cherubin the VRS retired artisan taking his grand children to school, our archetypal electors think about all this?

This week more than 814 million Indians have started voting in some 800,000 electoral booths using electronic voting machines over a period of five weeks in the largest democratic exercise in the world to elect a majority as per the FPTP electoral system in a much more complex and diverse society than Mauritius. Similarly, 7 million Afghan voters have braved a heightened level of terrorist acts to participate in the Presidential elections and proudly show their inked fingers as a referendum against the Taliban. Let this potent democratic spirit inspire us all to make our voice heard to demand that any electoral reform proposal should be holistic and not piecemeal, be driven by the interests of the nation instead of those of political parties and their leaders, respect the sovereignty of the people’s vote and that in its final form, it should first obtain a public mandate from the electorate by referendum.

 


* Published in print edition on 11 April 2014

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