PM should reject recommendations of Electoral Boundaries Commission
The Prime Minister has three valid reasons to reject the recommendations contained in the recently published Report of the Electoral Boundaries Commission. First, the report violates the spirit of section 39(3) of the Constitution since it is based on an outdated population census. Albie Sachs has already warned us on the shortcomings of the 1999 Electoral Boundaries Report which was based on the 1990 census.
Second, there is a strong likelihood that since the recommendations of the Commission, if approved by the National Assembly, can only come into effect as from the dissolution of the Assembly and may not coincide with the coming into force of the next electoral register, a number of electors may become disenfranchised. Any attempt to amend the Constitution at this late stage will be a severe setback to our democratic ideals. It would have been better to have amended the Constitution prior to the preparation of the Report.
Third, under the Westminster system of government, it is the Prime Minister who decides the timing and the date of the elections. This is an important prerogative that is given to the Prime Minister. Should he implement the recommendations of the Commission, he will certainly be denied the prerogative of deciding the date of the election.
Let us look at these issues in turn.
Section 39 of the Constitution requires the Commission to review the boundaries of our electoral constituencies in time to enable it to present its Report to the National Assembly every ten years. It is however important to bear in mind that the prescriptive time of six years is not absolute since the National Assembly can at any time or after the holding of an official census, resolve that the Commission should present a Report. The founding fathers of our Constitution had therefore the foresight to realise that there may be constitutional, political and other imperatives that may warrant the postponement of the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission. Any argument to the effect that the next Report will be in six years does not hold water in the circumstances: the more so, since the present Report is based on an outdated population census carried out ten years ago.
The guiding principles to be followed by the Commission are contained in section 39(3) of the Constitution. It provides that the number of inhabitants of each constituency should be as nearly equal as is reasonably practicable to the population quota. The population quota is calculated by dividing the number of inhabitants by 20, being the number of constituencies. The number of inhabitants of a constituency may be greater or less than the population quota since account must be taken of the population density of a region, boundaries of administrative areas and less significant factors such means of communication and geographical features. The good intention of the Commission in the discharge of its functions is not doubted but so long as the Report is based on an outdated population census, its accuracy and credibility are highly questionable and it may not have met its ultimate objectives of ensuring free and fair elections through the population quota criterion.
The Constitution also unambiguously provides that although the duty is cast on the Commission to make recommendations to the National Assembly it is within the sole prerogative of the Assembly to approve or reject these recommendations. It would be suicidal for any government to run the risk of depriving a significant number of electors their fundamental right to vote. An amendment to the Constitution would have to be considered but it would be politically and constitutionally incorrect to resort to such a legal subterfuge.
In its Report, the Commission reminds the Assembly that the next register of elector will only come into force on 16 August 2010 and a number of electors will be disenfranchised should the National Assembly be dissolved prior to that date. The dissolution of the Assembly will therefore be subject to the coming into force of the Register. Implicitly what the Commission is telling the Prime Minister is that he cannot call snap elections should he so decide. Once again resorting to an amendment of the Constitution to resolve a problem induced by a wrong implementation of constitutional provisions for the organisation of elections is unacceptable.
The Constitution has already had an overdose of encroachment over the last forty years. Another piecemeal amendment cannot be justified. But the writing is on the wall. The Prime Minister should invite the National Assembly to reject the recommendations of the Commission. He should ask the electorate for a new mandate for in-depth electoral reforms clearly spelt out in his party’s manifesto. The other political parties should consider the same approach. In 1976 Sir Seewoosagur did not hesitate to reject the Report of the Electoral Boundaries Commission and call for elections. So should the present Prime Minister.