Observer

Muddled Reform

Is a blank cheque for post electoral trauma and drama what we really want?

OBSERVER

A lot has been said and written, and no doubt more valuable contributions will continue, about the electoral system which has served us for almost half a century, a span of experience which has highlighted both its virtues and its deficiencies. Every democratic electoral system has its own peculiarities suited to the history, temperament and specificness of the country it aims to serve and ours, even though secured against the difficult backdrop of independence from manipulative colonial masters, is no exception.

Lest we throw the baby with the bath water, we should perhaps not forget some of the substantial virtues associated with our basic First Past The Post (FPTP) system with twenty and one constituencies, 62 returned Members of Parliament (MPs) and up to 8 Best Loser (BL) MPs, 4 of whom were intended to correct a potential imbalance of sorts in “minority” representation at the National Assembly and up to 4 to correct any resulting political imbalance.

This “double-detente” mechanism allows community-based correction without however destabilizing the outcome of the FPTP, thus providing what a current of public opinion perceive as needed psychological constitutional protection, even if no Best Loser MP to my mind has ever presented himself as guardian of some minority or other.

The cardinal virtue of the FPTP, yielding in general strong and governable majorities in Parliament, with the BL safeguard, can be argued to have combined social stability and effective governing outcomes over much of the period. In addition, all MPs, including BL ones, are equal in being answerable to one particular constituency and to their sometimes demanding “mandants”, irrespective of the charges and responsibilities that may befall their MP.

By and large, it is a devil we know, with problems and limitations that are identifiable, some inherent to the system, others emanating from social and societal evolutions of a nation trying to come of age. Some are clear and manifest, others less commented upon, but, except for some issues, the solutions are intractably complex and require a large degree of consensus from our body politic and the country. It is no wonder that none of the electoral majorities which, in 1982, 1991, 1995 or 2000, had some reform legitimacy and the required qualified majority in the House for actually implementing electoral reform never managed to do so.

Curiously, the MMM and Mr Berenger was a major or dominant partner in all four previous instances when achievable reform was, during tenure, left on the back-burner, only to be seized upon as platform or alliance-bartering argument for the next bout, pretty much as the case suits that party or its leader. From a quixotic battle for a “necessary re-equilibrage” between the powers of the PM and the President, through expressed support for a second House, to current day harping for the same degree of PR which the MMM-MSM failed to usher from 2000 to 2005, while being receptive to koz-koze about a second Republic, the MMM leader’s trail remains baffling. Not the least paradox for a wily political leader who vociferated for long against Best Loser MPs, “députés l’imposte”, a category he joined with alacrity in 1983 before becoming its apparent ardent champion today.

Be that as it may, our electoral system has the chief inconvenient that relatively minor swings in the electorate can and does generate huge swings in seats, to the extent of depriving the National Assembly with adequate representation for 30 to 40% of the population. The various 60-0s and such 57-3s as have taken place are ample evidence of this distortion, inevitably resulting in instability and frustrations while Parliament lacks enough Opposition MPs to do its expected watchdog job and keep government on its toes.

Bref, we have a system that works in the 47-15 seat range but runs amok when electoral swings or pre-election alliances yield lopsided Parliaments. Nobody has yet proposed a system that can reliably curb these excesses while allowing “normal” electoral process to continue giving stability, fairness, a working government, less temptation for floor-crossing and a reasonably numbered Opposition.

The integration of a degree of Proportional Representation (PR) to mitigate the excesses of FPTP may open the door to more instability than it intends to cure. Too much of it, even if we were to condone more costly MPs than the current 62+8, could pervert the FPTP result. A strong current of opinion believe that say 20 PR MPs could effectively block, thwart or pervert the results of FPTP. That should be weighed with care.

Worse still, there is a risk that even a more modest number of PR-MPs could leave us, ordinary citizens, helpless onlookers as weakened parties emerging from FPTP-cum-PR embark on a merry-go-round of post-electoral alliance negotiations. Some seasoned politics from the MMM-fold have said equably that this is quite OK. I must admit the perspective of post-electoral pork-barrel politics, nitty-gritty bartering, horse-trading for all public posts, potential blackmail and poaching of MPs, or executive paralysis for months on end, should be enough to send shivers down every spine. Is a blank cheque for post electoral trauma and drama what we really want?

The 62 FPTP + 20 PR + 8 BL formula currently being pushed by Mr Berenger is notoriously excessive in absolute numbers for some 700,000 voters or so. There are little justifications for such a behemoth with its associated life-time costs, more so when the country will continue to face daunting financial situations for years to come.

It would enshrine three groups of MPs: the sweating constituency ones who will have to answer to irate mandants and all, the comfy PR ones who will squiggle through by virtue of PR-list position jockeying and still another group of BL MPs who would access Parliament only through nomination by their leader after elections were done. Was there ever a better recipe for “galimatias”? Or is it designed so party leaders can hold absolute sway over their stable? Would the three category of MPs qualify equally to perks and fringe benefits including life-time pensions? By the way, would the same law or “règlement” apply to each category when it comes to seeking “patriot”, “jamalac”, transfuge MPs or those who prefer election platform loyalty to knee-jerk party line-toeing?…

I must admit having much sympathy for the independent-minded Guimbeau on this issue of electoral reform as he suggests a Second Chamber to accommodate all MPs beyond our 62 FPTP, whether they are nominated as BLs or selected on PR lists and where they could even be joined by some valuable nominated competencies who may accept to serve their country thus. Somehow, I doubt he will get mileage out of this.

The other problem that our system has ingrained of course is the requirement for community declaration of candidates to make the BL system operational and effective. Whether a UN Human Rights watchgroup has enunciated its feeling on this issue in response to the “Rezistans ek Alternativ” plea is a moot point to my mind; true it forces us to respond within 6 months, but then, from the whole of the Middle East to Latin America, through Africa, near and Far-East Asia, the world is jam-packed with far more crying situations where minority rights are daily abused than here. From the distance of air-conditioned offices, are they even aware of our socio-political context or the generally quiescent race or ethnic relations we have developed since independence?

Which does not mean we can rest easy with the perspective of this and maybe other future constitutional challenges. For instance, would our Supreme jurisdiction be sensitive tomorrow to Bambous and Baie du Cap voters saying they are being unreasonably discriminated against, with 3 MPs for 80,000 voters while some urban MPs sail through with only 20,000 voters? If we begin updating things, then should we not also update our constituencies to better reflect the geographical migrations that have inevitably taken place over forty years and correct unduly abnormal situations in electoral representation? A can of worms or a plausible cause?

And if we do continue reserving seats for the ethnic/religious/community denomination, why shouldn’t the handicapped, the 18-35 age group, atheists or some alternative lifestylers not appeal to the Supreme Court against systemic under-representation in Parliament? I am glad there are experienced constitutionalists to weigh and ponder such things through! The gender issue is about the only one which could be addressed fairly easily by enforcing a minimum presence on PR lists and even on constituency groups of 3 candidates, once admitted the quota approach as necessary to speed up change.

Concerning BLs, there is sympathy for those who hang on to its constitutional nature and those who believe in moving forward the agenda of nation-building without upsetting the social scene. Can PR subsume BL at a level that does not irreparably damage the virtues of FPTP? Can reform do away with areas of current and future constitutional discomfort? Should we just tinker with a degree of PR or engage in a wider review leading to a second Republic?…

At a period when the European and much of the international economy are still facing years of difficulties, when limited world resources will continue to face rising pressures, when we need our energies and competencies focused, we understand the importance that political consensus emerges rapidly with the objective of making us feel stronger, more united and more upbeat than before to face the development challenges ahead. But we should tread warily with electoral reform lest the cure engenders more intractable problems than it intends to assuage and leaves us and future generations as helpless “otages” of experimentation that would be extremely difficult to undo.

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