Proportional Representation: Bury the Damn Thing

An unequivocal decision against PR was taken by the people and architects of our independence as early as in 1956. Those who do not heed or learn the lessons of this categorical choice do so at their own risks and peril

Proportional representation (PR) has been for all intents and purposes dead and buried in the country after its dire pitfalls were exposed to the general public through the severe distortions caused by PR to the results of the Rodrigues regional Assembly elections. This is the more so as the decried proposals regarding PR and party lists proposed by the Labour-MMM alliance were determinant factors in their crushing defeat at the December 2014 general elections. The loud message sent by the people through the scathing defeat of the purportedly invincible combined might of the Labour-MMM alliance was that PR and party lists and permutations thereof are anathema to them. 

During the constitutional discussions in 1956 leading to the London Agreement in March 1957 which established the electoral system prevailing in Mauritius, those who fought for and won independence made a categorical choice. They firmly opposed and emphatically rejected Proportional Representation which had been rabidly canvassed by the reactionary forces in the country to thwart the democratic will of the multitude through division. This historical choice is an intrinsic core element of the ethos, ideals, DNA and values which underpin the independence of the country. In the run up to independence, every means was used by the reactionary forces to balkanize and divide the downtrodden masses on the basis of religion, community or race in order to rig the outcome of the elections, to no avail. The sovereign will of the people prevailed, as independence cut loose from a decried colonial regime, rooted people’s rights and carried the aspirations and hopes of the people for a better socio-economic order.

From the outset, proportional representation had been rejected by the people fighting for independence in an official response dated October 1956 sent by Guy Forget, the President of the Labour Party to the Secretary of State for the Colonies on the grounds that it would inter alia ‘prevent the normal development of the country on the basis of a Mauritian identity, aggravate and perpetuate divisions among Mauritians on racial and religious lines’ which the Labour Party considered its duty to prevent. This posit remains paramount and is a cardinal principle of our independence.

Furthermore, the manner the Best Loser System was couched and the principles underlying the allocation of the second set of 4 seats to correct distortions caused by the first set of 4 seats emphasize the overriding objective of ensuring that the outcome of the First Past The Post elections results are in no way watered down and remain paramount in all circumstances. There is no ambiguity in respect of the supremacy of the FPTP election results at all times.

Moving the goalpost

Yet, the leader of the MMM remains undeterred. He is hell bent on exhuming PR. For years, he has become the new avatar who anachronistically champions PR, despite it having been emphatically and repeatedly rejected by the people. All this is so reminiscent of a bygone mindset and era. The MMM and its leadership have suffered numerous defeats at the polls. The defeat at the Belle Rose-Quatre Bornes by-election in December 2017 is the last of a long humiliating list of seven consecutive defeats at the polls since 2005 by the MMM and its leader. The rules of our electoral system cannot be bent or tweaked to pander to the parochial and selective interests of party leaders as it is the people who decide on the electoral system they are comfortable with. PR cannot therefore serve to move the goalpost or rig the rules in a bid to conjure and overturn repeated defeats suffered through the First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system into victory.

The people have woken up to the pitfalls of PR through the disconcerting election results conjured by the hybrid electoral system contrived for Rodrigues. The upshot was that the majority of four seats obtained by the winning party L’Organisation du Peuple de Rodrigues (OPR) through the time tested FPTP voting system at the February 2012 regional elections was shaved to a tenuous and fragile majority of just one seat after the application of the PR provisions of the Rodrigues Regional Assembly electoral system. It thus rendered the OPR administration of Rodrigues more difficult and exposed it to all sorts of pressures and lobbying from both party members and the opposition. No wonder the main political parties in Rodrigues, the OPR and the Mouvement Rodriguais (MR) were up in arms and called for the elimination of PR from the Rodriguan electoral system.

In a surrealistic development, the Rodrigues electoral system was therefore tweaked through amendments made to it in December 2016 by the local high priests of PR to contain distortions, to no avail. Yet again a larger majority of 8 seats obtained in the FPTP regional elections in February 2017 by the winning party OPR was cut down to the 3 seats majority guaranteed to the winning party by the amendments made to the enabling Act. It is obvious that Rodrigues has been used as a guinea pig by the local apprentices tinkering dangerously with the electoral system without any authority to do so from the people.

Divisive

Proportional representation is divisive and convoluted. It also spawns adverse fallouts. Despite its largely homogeneous population, the election results spun by the Rodrigues Regional Assembly electoral system have confused and bamboozled the electorate at each election. It would certainly be far worse if the electoral system in Mauritius was subverted by divisive PR as it would open a Pandora’s Box of ethnic, religious, communal and caste based splinter political parties which will entrench political instability in the country, as in Israel.

Party list proportional representation has fragmented Israel through the proliferation of ultra-nationalist, ultra-orthodox and right wing religious parties which have bred short-lived fragile coalition governments which are imposing hard-line policies in Palestinian occupied territory and have systematically scuttled all initiatives of peace negotiations with Palestine. The PR driven government fragility is evidenced by the tell-tale fact that the current government is the 34th government since the founding of Israel in 1948. No wonder PR has never found a foothold in the most important democracies of the world.

The leader of the MMM is once again riding on his high PR horses in the wake Emmanuel Macron’s recent proposals of constitutional reform which includes a dose of 15% of MPs to be elected through PR, which has displeased his election ally Francois Bayrou. We will recall that the proposals for a Second Republic which had been a key factor in the ignominious defeat of the Labour Party-MMM alliance at the December 2014 general elections was an esoteric and untested hotchpotch cobbled from elements drawn  from diverse constitutions including those of Cape Verde, Malawi, Turkey, France, India and Tunisia.  No kidding!

The French PR constitutional reform proposals cannot be extracted out of context. They are part of a wide range of fundamental reform proposals which inter alia includes reducing the number of MPs from 577 to 404 and Senators from 348 to 244 in France i.e. by 30% for a population of 66.9 million people. France reform proposals follow their own logic and imperatives. Mauritius is not France or Turkey. 

An electoral system must be simple to understand and its possible outcome predictable for the voter. Most of the world’s democracies including the largest ones such as the United States, India, the UK, Canada, Nigeria, Mexico, Indonesia, Singapore, many island states or Malaysia use the FPTP electoral system. It enables the voter understand and gauge the outcome of his vote in a democratic system in a straight forward manner.  Our present electoral system based on the FPTP voting system has served us well. It has preserved stability, social harmony and assured the socio-economic development of the country. Apart from the 1976 elections, it has elected successive governments with a comfortable majority to manage the affairs of the country.

Trojan horse

The ministerial committee which is addressing the problem of elimination of the compulsory ethnic declaration of candidates in the context of the Best Loser System pursuant to the ruling by the United Nations Human Rights Committee has to do so on its own merits. This issue cannot be conjured, as seems to be the case presently, into a Trojan horse for the introduction of PR through the back door. In contrast to the recent reform proposal to reduce the number of MPs and Senators in France by 30%, the ministerial committee seems to be doing the exact opposite. Recent electoral reform proposals reported in the press which refer to an increase of the number of MPs from 70 to up to 89 including 12 chosen from party lists and PR are therefore simply not on. Mauritius already has a significantly higher ratio of MPs to its population than that in major democracies such as the USA, UK, India or France.

70 MPs therefore already represent a maximum, the more so as the inordinately high salary package and handsome perks granted to Ministers and MPs are a far cry from the range of salaries prevailing in the country. The generous package was meant to attract the top professionals and talent of the country who are already high income earners, to serve the country for a term of office to help leapfrog the country through their path breaking and innovative initiatives. This is far from being the case in the country. The quality of the political class is such that the current trade off is detrimental to the Exchequer. It is a lose-lose and untenable situation which needs to be urgently reviewed.

The ruling of the United Nations Human Rights Committee relates to the Best Loser system (BLS). PR is full of pitfalls, surprises and dire outcomes. The BLS is computed on the basis of a precise method of calculation. Two steps can be taken to address this situation. Firstly, why can’t we start publishing the census of the population data required for the BLS once again?  Precise figures would be better than the artificial use of averages. Such statistics as well as the census of ethnicity would be useful for a host of reasons including for preventive medicine, education, general administration, etc. Secondly, the law should be amended to make it no longer compulsory for election candidates to declare their community. They should be left free to decide if they want to do so to benefit from the BLS or not.

 Not a job for the dilettante

Constitutional amendments and electoral reform cannot be undertaken on an ad hoc, knee jerk, selective and piecemeal basis. They have to be addressed in a holistic manner with our priorities clearly set out. They should encompass and prioritize such core democratic issues such as the unacceptable wide disparity in the number of voters per constituency in the country. We cannot, at a time when the Electoral Boundaries Commission is reviewing the boundaries of constituencies, have multiple constituencies which have nearly three times the number of voters of the smallest constituencies but which elect the same number of three MPs. This iniquitous situation cannot continue.

The range of issues to be addressed comprise inter alia the pensions of MPs, Ministers, the President and the Vice President, the limitation of the terms of office of the Prime Minister to two, an end to cumulative pensions paid by the Exchequer, the terms and conditions of appointment of the President and Vice President, the transparent financing of political parties, a clearer definition of the unalienable rights of people and the lay values of the republic in the Constitution,  the establishment of rules to ensure more transparency in the manner political parties are organised, financed and candidates for elections are chosen in order to put an end to the present undemocratic rule and hegemony of political dynasties over parties, the separation of religion from politics,  the issue of crossing of the floor, reviewing and modernizing the scope and powers of the Electoral Commission, etc. The list is long. They have to be addressed in toto and not as is the case now selectively.

It is therefore high time to put an end to the dangerous and selective tinkering of the Constitution by the dilettante as evidenced by the Rodrigues Regional Assembly Act or the provisions relating to the terms and conditions of appointment of the President and the Vice President. Constitutional amendments have to be comprehensive instead of being piecemeal. They can only be proposed and drafted by a Constituent Assembly comprising highly regarded and experienced international constitutional jurists. The corollary is that all proposed amendments have first to be clearly explained and approved by the people through a referendum.

The people must remind the wayward political class that an unequivocal decision against PR was taken by the people and architects of our independence as early as in 1956. Those who do not heed or learn the lessons of this categorical choice do so at their own risks and peril. As anticipated, the dynamics of unity, nationhood and a sense of kinship have cemented and strengthened the nation. There is therefore no place for the divisive agendas of the proponents of PR at the time or their post independent avatars in modern Mauritius. It is high time to bury the damn thing for good.

 


* Published in print edition on 27 April 2018

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