Electoral reform and Second Republic
The small committee of lawmakers set up to propose legislative changes in view of ‘electoral reform’ continued to work this week.
It identified different scenarios that might play out, given the proposed reforms. According to the Attorney General who presides over the committee, implementation difficulties (pertaining, for example, to the 10% threshold for eligibility to proportional representation, the absence of an opposition in the House in the event of a 60-0 win and inadequate gender representation by political parties) which have been spotted out will be dealt with. He stated that a copy of the revised draft Constitutional amendment to give effect to the proposed reforms would be handed over to the Prime Minister by today.
As we know, any contemplated Constitutional amendment would require a three-quarter majority of the House voting in favour for it to go through. MPs would need to carefully weigh the pros and cons of any proposed amendment, given the burden of responsibility imposed on them by the existing Constitution in terms of gathering the necessary majority to carry it through. Constitutional changes have far-reaching implications for the governance and stability of the country. They need to be addressed to the right forum and given the attention they deserve for the sake of the present and future generations.
Just to recall. It all began with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) which took note of the plea brought before it by Resistans ek Alternativ, a small political group that had been denied the right to stand for the general elections unless its candidates declined their community belongings among the four groups listed in the Constitution. The principal issue was that they ought not be forced to declare such community belonging for participating in the polls.
To deal with the matter, it was fairly simple. The House could have been invited to state whether members would agree to amend the relevant Schedule of the Constitution to make it optional for candidates to be eligible to stand whether or not they declare on the election form their community belonging. If at least three quarters of the members voted in favour, that would do away with the problem brought up to the notice of the UNHCR, without impacting allocation of supplementary parliamentary seats on the existing Best Loser System based on the old population census of 1972, as it exists in the Constitution.
After the pronouncement of the UNCHR in the matter, nothing of this sort happened materially except assurances given from time to time by the Prime Minister that he would come forward with reform proposals in the light of consultations he had commissioned with experts in the field. Meantime, Resistans ek Alternativ had taken the matter to court and when the case was called up recently, the government side stated that reform proposals were to be tabled in the Assembly, the effect of which was to stay court action in the case.
It has gradually come to light that the reform proposals involve two chapters. The first one called ‘electoral reform’ would, amongst others, introduce a dose of proportional representation (PR) in the election system, having by the same token the effect of increasing the numbers of deputies in the Assembly and diluting the First Past the Post system (FPTP) in existence since independence. The second, called Second Republic, involves changing the Constitution to make way for the setting up of a Presidential system conferring executive powers on the President of the Republic and, hence, taking away the almost plenipotentiary powers currently vested under the Constitution in the Prime Minister.
These proposals go much beyond what the UNCHR and Resistans ek Alternativ contemplated in the circumstances. It may not be out of step to seek an element of fairer representation of political parties in the House by introducing a small dose of PR but without frustrating the overall decisional weight of the FPTP in our system as it has played out election after election. We have argued considerably ever since the proposals were put up that, given the significance of the changes being proposed, the House as it is constituted today, not having the mandate for the same from the people, should obtain prior sanction from the people for the same beforehand.
By so doing, political parties will not have themselves to blame when things go sour, such as if political instability sets in. The people in its wisdom would have had the opportunity to carefully weigh the consequences of its choice towards an improved electoral system. It cannot then blame anybody but itself if politics does not evolve for its higher welfare and advancement or for the necessary social and political stability unbiased by clannish interests, further to the changes that would then have been introduced. All this would besides be in the true democratic spirit that an evolving modern society like that of Mauritius would aspire to.
We would hope that the proposals for overhauling Constitutional changes contemplated currently by the committee of legal experts presided over by the Attorney General will first be put up to the people in an election process. The people would surely approve them if they are perceived to be in the larger national interest. If this course of action were followed, Mauritius would brighten up its democratic credentials. By the same token, the political class would live up to the people’s expectations for the trust they have placed in them by electing them in the last general elections.
* Published in print edition on 30 May 2014