“Political leaders who are morally and ethically driven are key to the change we all want to see”

Interview: Dr Roukaya Kasenally, Social Activist and Democracy Scholar

* ‘One of the biggest threats to our democracy is the advent of big money and its ability to easily crowd out smaller parties and candidates’

* ‘What is worrying is the growing trend towards a practice of non-accountability among elites where there is a clear collusion of interests between the business and political world’

In today’s interview, Roukaya Kasenally, a democracy scholar and an Associate Professor in Media and Political Systems at the University of Mauritius, dissects the several aspects of dysfunction in our democracy, and argues for more transparent financing of political parties, genuine separation of powers so that the check and balance system actually works and pleads for institutional strengthening by nominating or appointing the right persons in the right places by a mechanism which can neutralize to some extent at least the phenomenon of political patronage and protection.

Besides holding the position of CEO of the African Media Initiative, Roukaya Kasenally is currently the Chair of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa and a board member of the West Africa Democracy Radio. She has authored/co-authored a number of publications on media and democratic systems. She holds a PhD from the University of Sheffield.

Mauritius Times: If we go by the assessments of different international agencies on the governance and democratic credentials of this country, Mauritius would be doing much better than most countries on the African continent and even elsewhere. As a democracy scholar, do you find the glass half empty or half full?

Dr Roukaya Kasenally: Before answering your question, it is perhaps important to offer a global overview as to the state of democracy. For the last five years, we are experiencing a constant decline in democracy across the world. Today, we have more authoritarian regimes than actual democracies.

In fact, recent reports released by the V-Dem Institute or the EIU Democracy Index shed light on this worrisome trend and on what democracy scholars such as Larry Diamond and Francis Fukuyama have termed as a leap in democratic deficiency across the world. No doubt, we are living in difficult times and there is an urgent need to create greater understanding and clarity as to what democracy means and how it can serve the citizens in their quest for more just and equal societies.

In the case of Mauritius, a fair bit of my scholarly work has focused at deconstructing what I refer to as the ‘picture perfect’ Mauritian democratic model. The various democratic tables of leagues do systematically position Mauritius as the number one democracy to be emulated in Africa. My concern with such a classification, however, is that it merely skims on the surface, offering just a score point as opposed to a more in-depth analysis as to the actual functioning of democracy. For me there is an urgent need to spend one’s energy on the quality of democracy as opposed to a point score.

In fact, the problem that we face in Mauritius is for too long we have cultivated a highly romanticised version of Mauritius – be it its democracy or the miracle economic model. A number of countries in Africa are doing much better than us – the case of Rwanda when it comes to, for example, gender representation in parliament (incidentally the highest in the world). So for me there is still a lot of work to be done as democracy is a project that is in constant construction.

* What do you consider could constitute a threat to our democracy, and how should it be addressed?

The fact that we have espoused a highly romanticised version of the Mauritius democratic model and often beat our chests that we are number one in Africa have contributed to a sense of complacency. Complacency in turn encourages stagnation and does not augur well for any society.

For the last 20 years we have been discussing/debating electoral reform but to no avail. We have had the Sachs Report, the Carcassonne Report, the Sithanen Recommendations as well as a number of Select Committees but still continue to contest each general election with the First Past the Post (FPTP) and Best Loser System inherited from our colonial period. On numerous occasions we have witnessed the clear limitations of the FPTP and BLS which have promoted a ‘winner takes all’ syndrome and an ‘overfocus’ on identity politics.

There are multiple threats to our democracy and this to a great extent is exhibited by the manner in which politics is conducted – fuelled by the presence of big money and the growing influence of socio-cultural lobbies that invite themselves into the conduct of politics on the island. These two features have contributed to creating a highly polarised and exclusionary way of doing politics and by extension has considerably harmed (and continues to harm) our democracy.

* There is also the issue of political financing. State financing may not necessarily put an end to political donations from individuals and private companies, and politicians may wish to have access to both. There seems to be no one best model available to ensure a level playing field, isn’t it? Do you think there’s one we could have followed? What terms? Which model we should emulate, etc.?

One of the biggest threats to our democracy is the advent of big money and its ability to easily crowd out smaller parties and candidates that have less connected networks. In fact, big money causes an unlevel playing field and often taints the democratic process.

A research report commissioned by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (of which a colleague and I were the authors) on the ‘Cost of Parliamentary Politics in Mauritius’ was recently released. It highlights the sad reality that money is a necessity for those contesting an election as campaigns are getting more and more expensive and that party ideology and loyalty have been replaced by clientelism and ‘what is in it for me’.

Political party funding has been an integral part of the discussions on electoral reform, but we have not been able to move an iota on this. The latest offering was the ‘Political Financing Bill’ (2019) which failed to receive the required three-quarter majority in parliament to become law. My understanding is that we cannot dissociate party funding from party electoral expenses as they go hand in hand. Currently, there is a big gap between the ceiling of expenses allowed by law and what is actually spent during a campaign by a candidate. Most candidates duly swear an affidavit and file their returns to the Electoral Commission Office (ECO) confirming that they have not gone beyond the imposed ceiling but we all know the sums spent are tenfold or more!

Perhaps the most important steps that could allow for a more inclusive model would be to make the registration of political parties mandatory (not only during an election) as well as strengthen the role and responsibility of the ECO and Electoral Supervisory Commission (ESC).

* As regards political donations, the question that arises is whether large donations secure greater access to and influence politicians to bestow illegitimate favours or adopt policies that go against the public interest. What’s your take on that?

The problem with political donations is the opacity in which they are laced and there is no doubt that money or other forms of resources are given with the tacit expectation of getting something in return.

In recent years we have heard of the candid disclosure of certain politicians of the money bags that have transited through their hands. We have witnessed concrete examples be it the Sun Trust building or the money found in the coffers of Navin Ramgoolam. What is worrying is the growing trend towards what can be referred to as a practice of non-accountability among elites in Mauritius where there is a clear collusion of interests between the business and political world.

In fact, a forthcoming book (out in March 2021) on ‘Elites and the Politics of Accountability in Africa’ where my colleague and I were responsible for the chapter on Mauritius speaks volumes on this culture of collusion which can no doubt be to the detriment of the citizen. That is why it is so important to ensure a vibrant civil society and an engaged citizenry that are is able to ensure and call to order this type of lop-sided relation, and that institutions function and expose political patronage and favours to small and closed groups with proximity to those in power. We have seen a number of initiatives come from the African continent – I specifically refer to the public inquiry on state capture in South Africa.

* However corporate proximity to political power may not have always been detrimental to the public interest as during the post-independence years when the process of economic diversification had to be engaged, or when it was sought to rein in economic concentration with support given to new players like BAI, Gamma Civic, etc. What do you think?

As we try to shed light on this issue, it is important that we debunk what is meant by public interest. We at times have the tendency to use it in a catch-all manner and thus dilute what it is really supposed to mean – in the interest of all citizens and for the common good.

Indeed you are right to emphasis on the contributory role of the private sector in the building phase of post-independent Mauritius, and this has been highlighted by number of scholars such as Deborah Brautigam and Sheila Bunwaree.

What is clear in the case of Mauritius is that we have on one side the traditional elites emanating from pre-colonialism and those who constitute the post-independence elites. There has at times been a great level of animosity against what is often referred to as the five big Franco-Mauritian families and the need to redistribute wealth in a more inclusive manner. In 2005, following the electoral win by the Labour Party, there was the ‘democratisation of the economy’ project that was put to execution but unfortunately it was more buzz and fluff although the intention might have been genuine.

For me, as mentioned earlier, it is the growing collusion between business and political elites (be they traditional or new elites), and also the unbridled levels of political patronage where contracts are at times tailor-made to fit those close to those in power that is the main level of concern and needs to be urgently addressed. The question that I often ask myself is – who bats for the people?

* On the other hand, the separation of powers seems to be functioning properly with each of the branches of government – the legislative, executive and judicial – exercising its core functions. Is that indeed the case or is there an issue with the checks and balances?

All textbooks that refer to Mauritius speak about the separation of powers and that this acts as the cornerstone of Mauritian democracy. Over the last two decades, as a democracy scholar I have noted the slow but constant frittering away of two of these three core institutions – the executive and the legislative.

In the case of the legislature which is supposed to act as the horizon form of accountability of the executive – it is unable to live up to its duty to reign in the executive. Members of Parliament despite being elected to represent their constituents are more concerned in pleasing their political leaders and towing the party line. It would be correct to say that what we are witnessing today in the legislature has brought that institution to an unprecedented low. Yet the legislature is fundamental to the functioning of a democracy.

In the case of the executive, we note an accelerated trend of what can be called an over-bulging executive with 23 Ministers and 10 Parliamentary Private Secretaries. Currently, out of 42 MPs elected for the ruling party, 33 of them are in the executive making the oversight function of the legislature extremely weak.

Currently, the judiciary is the one that is still the flag bearer of perceived independence and credibility. However, one should not discount the other forms of checks and balances in a society, commonly referred to as the fourth estate (media) and the fifth estate (the citizen).

* The DPP has been dragged in the Press-ICAC tussle in the Angus Road controversy, but there appears to be a “bataille à distance” engaged between ICAC and the DPP’s Office. Does this help good governance in the country and by extension our democracy itself?

In a democracy matters often get messy as this is the very nature of contestation, protest and even controversy. Most of the respected democracy scholars emphasise the importance and functioning of core institutions to ensure democracy’s resilience. No doubt we still remember President Obama’s statement during his inaugural visit to Africa in 2008 – when he stated that Africa does not need strongmen but needs strong institutions.

What I am trying to say here is that when an institution fails to work as it should — especially one that is supposed to promote accountability and transparency – then it might be deemed ‘legitimate’ to drag it into the public sphere to get answers in the name of public interest.

* Speaking of the anti-corruption agency, ICAC’s inexplicable turnaround in the MedPoint case as much as the list of affairs where it is yet to be known where its inquiries stand has thrown doubt on the institution itself. What do you make out of this? Do we have a problem with the appointment procedures and criteria for some of the key posts in the country and which may not be serving our democracy well?

What President Obama said about the need for strong institutions and not strongmen speaks to this point.

In the last two decades political patronage has done much disservice to the credibility and integrity of many of our institutions. We are all aware how flawed and biased the appointment/nomination process is and how dangerous when people who have no or little knowledge or skills or those who are politically very close to those in power are put into position of responsibility.

Recently there has been some discussion on setting up a cross parliamentary committee for the appointment and nomination of those in key positions. This will allow for a bipartisan consensus and re-establish the so important check and balance concept.

* On the other hand, there are also the issues of democratisation of political parties, limitation of prime ministerial term, constitutional reform and Second Republic, more engagement of civil society, Right to Information, etc. ‘Vaste chantier’, but there does not seem to be a beginning of reform. Is politics the problem?

No, politics is not the problem; it is the manner in which it is practised. At the heart of progress is the constant need to review, update and change. In the case of Mauritius, we are acutely aware that we need to modernise our electoral system by ensuring fairness and representation, that we need to democratise the manner in which leaders are elected or nominated within political parties and that democracy is not merely voting every five years.

Therefore, there is the need for all the different stakeholders to be more involved in the consolidation of democracy. For me this is necessary if we want to make our democracy more meaningful and relevant to the lives of people. That is why voters’ education, accountable and transparent political parties, and political leaders who are morally and ethically driven are key to the change we all want to see.

* In the matter of Angus Road, it’s the Prime Minister who has been targeted by the press, and that for many weeks now. There have been threats of legal action against the press, but no journalist has been put behind bars – at least to date. What does it say for our society and the democratic climate in the country?

The media is a key feature of any democracy and those who can speak truth to power help to ensure that matters are exposed in the public space.

Having said this, we are aware that across the world journalists are persecuted and tortured for the work they do or the inconvenient truths they expose. In the case of Mauritius, although we have an existing battery of laws that can potentially reign in the media, namely sedition and defamation, we have rarely seen journalists behind bars.

However, it is not the current battery of laws that I am concerned with but more with what self-censorship can make journalists do or not do. Legal action and when one brandishes mega sums, there might somewhere somehow be self-censorship of journalists and certain media houses. Now this is even more pernicious for democracy than anything else.

* Published in print edition on 1 December 2020

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