Despite the inflamed fears of the sixties and the understandable anxieties linked with uncertain futures, probably all politicians, business operators and civil society recognise today that independence and budging nationhood were the necessary and indispensable battle outcomes of those who felt the yoke of colonial masters had run its course. Our Constitution, drafted under such divisions, tensions and pressures, can be said to have helped us navigate those troubled times, without any community or socio-cultural group feeling threatened or disenfranchised.
Fifty years on, with the benefit of accumulated experience, civil associations, social media activists, a more educated society and a wiser body politic alike, may feel that such wrinkles have surfaced that there is some urgency to refresh and review the anomalies, some merely irritatingly quirky, others a major hindrance to nation-building, still others unacceptable by their gaping void, of our Constitutional setup, electoral processes and operational governance.
And we have no doubt that experienced political leadership looking to the next fifty years, rather than the usual political horizon, have more than anybody else the necessary appreciation of what should be on the review table, even if all may not agree on the best mechanism for moving forward with a major rethink and rewrite of what has constituted their familiar operational modes. They also understand, perhaps more intimately and certainly with a quicker political grasp than most of us, the volatility and emotiveness some key issues may churn up and have to be reasonably cautious not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
But some of the accumulated floss is now so apparent and the span of issues so large, that it deserves more than the usual approach: for instance, a political alliance patch-up leading to the Presidency and Vice-Presidency or the proposed 2014 second republic. To rely solely therefore, as has been the case in the past, on the body politic to thrash out and clobber compromises on many issues which directly impact their own agendas and political fortunes, could be somewhat naive, leading us into narrower than necessary perspectives. Concerned citizens, NGOs, observers from different walks of life and civil society should have their say in some of the matters and operations which they ultimately have to fund and tolerate.
On the gaping void front, political and electoral campaign financing are matters which can no longer be swept under the carpet or subject to the opportune check-boxing by political alliances running out of their tether and not really bothered to change what has served them. Normal democratic functioning and issues that have lately cropped up of occult financing, money-laundering, shady governance, « retour d’ascenseur » phenomena and some opacity in major contract allocations, require that we urgently consider how best to meet the functioning of political parties, with corollary the need for their registration and annual accounts.
And of course, the biggest and thorniest issue is that of electoral campaign financing at national and constituency levels. If the frilosity of taxpayers to fund the activities and electoral campaigns of political parties has been exacerbated over recent years, much of the blame has to be laid squarely at the perceived abuses by our body politic itself in recent years. Many MPs and politicians spend countless days and weekends in their constituencies, but we must recognise that « flying pigeons », backpackers at highest levels, unlimited trips and per-diems, inflated lifestyles and perks, salaries that are well beyond the pale relative to our GDP, advisors of uncertain backgrounds with so many hats that it’s a miracle they get some actual work done somewhere, have all contributed to erode the notion of service to the people. Combine this with the lack of transparency about their « overseas missions » and most ordinary folk feel some natural degree of outrage even if some are actually of benefit to the country.
But this sense of aggrievement should not prevent a sober look at the considerable shadows hanging over financing of electoral campaigns by other means – businesses, external sources and high-profile donors. Nobody remotely believes the fairy-tale of hundreds of political fans each bringing a Rs 200 note to their party; politics has entered the realm of big business without even the simpler necessity of accounting and transparency. Most democracies have some form of post-electoral partial campaign expenditure re-imbursements from public funds based on clear and simple rules, with or without parallel transparent and often capped contributions from the business sectors, with the natural corollaries of audited accounts and transparency. A consensus adapted to our context will have to be found at some stage.
On the same front of gaping voids, one could add the desirability of a Second Chamber, whose virtues and usefulness may well override any of its inconveniences. We have at various times concurred with such a Chamber, which could be partly elected (say one per constituency) and partly nominated by a high-level nomenklatura of State personnel. Such a Chamber would provide a time lag in the consideration of bills of Parliament, some distanciation from party MPs following party lines and greater civil society input through proposed amendments to government legislation. In addition, if it is less constrained by normal Assembly sittings and rigid protocol, there are many areas of socio-economic interest that could be the subject of their investigations and reports, while the hypothetical institution’s Chair would certainly obviate the need for a costly Vice-Presidential political appointee or other paid Commissions. Whether body politic takes up the cudgels (again) on this issue remains somewhat moot unfortunately.
In the second category, chief among the elements discordant to nation-building stands out the question of socio-ethnic descriptors within our electoral process and, in particular, the Best Loser system, which, again, may have played an important emotional securising rôle, even if more in perception than in actual reality of community representation in Parliament. And almost everybody recognises the merits of Resistans ek Alternativ’s tireless battle questioning the awkwardness of that emotional security being still embedded in our Constitution. The absence of a second chamber and the inability to appoint Ministers or PPS outside the limited scope of our single Chamber may have been further impediments to the issues at stake, which have been the object of numerous reports already. Despite all previous efforts, the question still begs for a much-needed social and political consensus.
While we are on the topic of constitutional impediments inbuilt in our electoral system and which today are increasingly showing signs of wear, is the issue of fairness of our electoral representation where each vote must have similar weightage and value. Although we understand the communal concerns about the historical origins of the initial discrepancies, the progressive drift in population dynamics has turned the discrepancies into significant distortions. Can 22,000 voters in one constituency and some 60,000 in another, vote for the same number of MPs without expecting a constitutional challenge at some future stage?
If we retain the multiple-MP constituency organisation and if all efforts of the Electoral Boundary Commission have not sufficiently evened out constituency voter numbers, there might be some sense in introducing a compensatory additional seat where voter numbers exceed an established tolerance level. In other words, a form of multiple-member variable constituencies. The more effective and perhaps less complex alternative would be to have some 60 one-member constituencies, each with some 15,000 voters, plus or minus an agreed variance, the task of redrafting being left to the Boundaries Commission or a special purpose Constituency Commission perceived and accepted by political consensus as neutral.
On the Constitutional impediment front, we cannot overlook the status of the State’s superstructure with two political appointees, often the result of communal profiling or political alliances, enjoying the life-time perks, status and privileges of the Presidency and Vice-Presidency. Both posts have had some degree of decorum in the past when experienced political hands received what was perceived as a meritorious exit from long service in mainstream political activities. Unless we have a strongly entrenched communal or partisan prism, few would say the Lepep occupants of such high functions have deserved such tax-payer generosity. Indeed, nothing in our tropical « Westminster » model would have prevented 2, 3 or more political appointees being bombarded to the high office of the Reduit during a single mandate. The time has come for a sorely-needed review of such appointments, their associated privileges and the degree of control we would expect over their self-ordained activism or their associations with dubious fellows.
As for other questions of importance, most of us would have our own take and the list of issues that might or need to be addressed could be unbearably long! What seems certain is that business as usual would not prepare us for the next fifty year horizon.
* Published in print edition on 9 August 2019