Vijay Ahku: ‘It’d be unfair to go for PR without rationalizing the issue of unequal constituencies’

‘If the threshold for the introduction of PR is acceptable, many of the traditional parties may contest on their own rather than getting into artificial alliances’

Electoral reforms were the leitmotiv for a rapprochement contre-nature between the MMM and Labour in the 2014 elections. Hardly months after, drowned in the compliments the MMM leader has showered on SAJ over his stand on the Diego Garcia issue at the UN and his expeditious decision to get the MBC to cover National Assembly debates live, there is in the air a smell of electoral reform being thrown up by the MMM leader again. True to himself, SAJ, during his visit to Rodrigues, has responded to such suggestions that he would have none of the topsy-turvy type of Proportional Representation (PR) as what is in practice in Rodrigues. The subject having become live again, we asked an impartial but ear-to-the grounds analyst of electoral systems, Vijay Ahku, a specialised graduate and former senior school administrator what his views are about PR in the context of Mauritius. In the interview which follows, he states that there is a need to do a balancing for the long term but not by throwing out the system’s inherent stability…

* The issues of electoral reform and proportional representation (PR) have again come up for debate. The Prime Minister has responded to the PNQ of the Leader of the Opposition, Paul Berenger, with the proposition for a ministerial committee to look into these matters and to come forward with a report early next year. One should not expect any significant departure from the present electoral system given the PM’s and his Party’s stand vis-à-vis PR, isn’t it?

Electoral reform is a very important issue. It may affect our political system for many decades. The electoral system that we have inherited dates back to 1966 and it has served for half a century. Population growth and social awareness have undergone changes and we find that the present system needs to be reviewed. The same situation may arise after a period of time and, if our political system fails to cater for such changes in a long term, we may face serious difficulties. We must think twice because of our fragile social structure Therefore, a national consensus is necessary to address many issues concerning an electoral reform and a kind of memorandum of understanding must be the condition for any proposed electoral reform to succeed.

It is expected that a small dose of proportional representation may be proposed but the Prime Minister has clearly stated that the type of PR as it was the case for the Rodrigues Regional Assembly will not be envisaged as it goes against the choice of the electorate and may turn an elected majority into a minority.

* But we surely would not wish to have any more repeat of the earlier 60-0s or 57-3, and it has been argued in this connection that a dose of PR would provide a more fair representation of parties in Parliament. The question is: how far can we go in terms of PR and which PR voting system could be adopted to ensure that a majority win, under the existing First Past the Post System (FPTP), is not turned into a minority situation, effectively a defeat for the winning party/alliance? Is that doable?

Let us try to consider some basic facts on PR.

PR was introduced for the Rodrigues Regional Assembly after the general election of 2000 and was like a test-case for a possible PR to be proposed for Mauritius for the general elections. The 2012 Rodrigues Regional Assembly had produced the following results:

OPR

MR

FPR

MIR

Total votes

Total votes received

21 376

18 700

3 655

103

43834

% of votes

48.766 %

42.661 %

8.34 %

0.235%

No. elected as Regional Members

8

4

0

0

OPR had a clear majority of 4 seats.

After the allocation of the 6 PR seats, the result was as follows:

OPR

MR

FPR

MIR

TOTAL

No. of Regional Members

8

4

0

0

12

No. of Island Members. ( PR)

0

4

2

0

6

TOTAL

8

8

2

0

18

Now, OPR still had 8 seats while the other parties had a total of 10 seats. This is how PR can turn a majority into a minority. Luckily there is a clause in the Rodrigues Regional Assembly which enables the nomination of that number of Island members to a party having 8 Regional members so that it can have a majority but one. So, 3 additional PR seats were allocated to OPR and the final result was OPR = 11 and other parties = 10. The island is governed by a restricted majority of but 1.

Certainly, the Prime Minister has every reason to say that this type of overturning PR outcome in unacceptable.

* The electoral context in Mauritius is very much different from what obtains in other places which have adopted FPTP and PR voting systems. Our 20 constituencies come with unequal sizes, but each returns 3 MPs. For example, Constituency No 3 gets 3 MPs elected with only 23 112 voters, whereas Constituency No 14 does so with 62 524 voters. Would it be fair to go for PR without rationalising this question of uneven constituency sizes?

Certainly not. It is good to bring forward that the disparity between the constituencies of Mauritius was not so wide in the beginning. Most of the constituencies were in fact of nearly the same size and the number of voters in any single constituency was not exceeding the total number of voters in two constituencies. Today, unequal population growth and development has created a situation whereby a single constituency has 62 000 voters and the total number of voters in two constituencies is less than 50 000. Under existing electoral arrangements, 62 000 voters in a specific constituency are electing 3 MPs while less than 50 000 voters are electing 6 MPs. Therefore, we can rightly say that it would be unfair to go for PR without rationalizing this issue of unequal constituencies.

* Whether PR is adopted or not very soon or in the distant future, there is a case for bringing all constituencies on the same footing. But that sounds like a taller order than the adoption of PR itself. What do you think?

It is achievable if there is a will. Let me clarify.

At present there is a huge disparity in 10 of the 20 constituencies of Mauritius. Under normal circumstances, a deviation of + or minus 5% can be judged to be acceptable. Presently, the average number of voters per MP is approximately 1: 13 000. If a constituency returns 3 MPs, logically there must be about 40 000 voters in that constituency. Now, if we compare 62 000 in one constituency and only 23 000 voters in another constituency, it baffles democratic principles and in other countries this is considered to be a case of gerrymandering. If there was a discrepancy in 2 or 3 constituencies, we might have overlooked this issue. However, having a huge disparity in 10 constituencies is an alarming situation.

Therefore, it is of vital importance for the Electoral Boundaries Commission to carry out a new delimitation and make the constituencies more or less of the same size. This seems to be a very complex issue because of Constitutional constraints. Under present regulations, the Electoral Boundaries Commission carries out this exercise every 10 years. The last such exercise was done in 2009 and the next one is due in 2019 and may come after the next general election unless an amendment is made to bring it closer. It should also be pointed out that our Parliament cannot bring any changes to the Report submitted by the Electoral Boundaries Commission. Either, it is accepted and approved in toto or it is rejected for it to become effective. To make things move in the right direction, an amendment will need to be made so as to enable the Electoral Boundaries Commission to submit a report earlier than 2019 and before the next general election. The political class must react positively for such an amendment to be introduced and the Electoral Boundaries Commission should then make the recommendation for appropriate changes.

* What serves the political conveniences of any major political party or parties may not last forever under the winner-takes-all FPTP voting system, given the likelihood of a clustering of parties uniting or building blocks to beat the so-called majority party at the polls, isn’t it?

We must not think in terms of individual political parties. Any change in the electoral system should fundamentally be motivated in terms of the overall ‘collective good’. We need to leave a legacy for our future generations and we would like our children and grand-children to live in peace and harmony and combine efforts to make our country a strong nation, based on the perception of fairness, social stability and the endurance of the proposed scheme. It has to be a change for the next five to six decades and it must make every citizen feel at ease. If it is just and fair, every party would be able to contest on its own. It is possible.

Let me give a broader view of the issue: If the threshold for the introduction of PR is acceptable and the right formula is chosen and accepted, many of the traditional parties may contest on their own rather than getting into artificial alliances before the polls are taken.

* If constitutional changes have to be introduced, which voting system or combination thereof could be contemplated to reinforce the element of predictability of our electoral process, without introducing the element of instability in the polity?

There are many countries which have gone a long way in establishing and improving democratic principles. Women representation has also been an international concern and with some sacrifice on the part of each stakeholder, we may come with something tangible and long-lasting. To substantiate what I am stating, we shall try to make some suggestions for consideration.

Let us first of all try to determine the threshold or critical percentage of votes received by a party to be eligible for a PR seat. For the allocation of 20 PR seats, this critical hurdle should be 5%. This can be justified by the fact that 5% of 20 = 1. For a PR model of 10 seats, the critical bar should be at 10% as 10% of 10 equals to 1. Nominating 20 PR seats to a system whereby 60 members are elected is too high a ratio. You cannot gain on both counts: 25% of our MPs cannot be non-elected members. Therefore, we would rather propose a PR model of 10 nominees with a threshold of 10% of national votes for eligibility. This is actually the threshold in South Africa.

I would also suggest that we need not copy a formula which has been designed by electoral system designers of other countries but we should develop our own formula which can bring unity and uniformity. I would suggest that we allocate PR seats in proportion to the percentage of votes received. In 1987, the election results were as follows:

MSM-PTr-PMSD

UNION MMM

% of votes

49.86%

48.12%

No. of FPTP MPs

39

21

No. of BLS MPs

5

3

Total no. of MPs

44

24

Now, if the BLS seats were not allocated and 10 PR seats were to be allocated instead on the formula proposed, the result would have been as follows:

MSM-PTr-PMSD

UNION MMM

% of votes

49.86%

48.12%

No. of FPTP MPs

39

21

No. of PR seats

5

5

Total no. of MP’s

44

26

Let us now see the table below showing a fictitious result.

Party A

Party B

Party C

% of votes

48%

42 %

10%

No of FPTP MPs

35

25

0

No of PR seats

5

4

1

Total

40

29

1

The Government will have 40 seats and the opposition will remain with 30 seats in this example. The gap between the winning party and the other parties would be reduced but there will be a clear majority to give serenity to the Government to function. At the same time, it will give opportunities to our party leaders to correct any visible ethnic imbalances or low women representation in Parliament.

It is worth noting that a clause may be included to mitigate the gap between the winning party and other parties in case of a victory with a majority of over 50 seats. This clause would not allow a party/alliance with over 50 seats to be eligible for any PR seats. In such cases, the total votes of the winning party should be excluded and the votes of all other parties should be made to be 100% and the number of seats for allocation of PR seats would be calculated using the corrected ratio.

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