2017 – A Radical Programme to Advance the Democratic Cause

In the 21st century, further advances in our democracy must be accompanied by a radical programme to tackle the problems affecting the working classes

 We all agree that our country is not the type of democratic society we would have liked it to be. We can bring up a number of factors to explain the present situation. One could blame the political system which is in place. We can point to the lack of a sophisticated political culture of the electorate or deplore the role of the media or the financial clout of some people or groups. Yet we have the right to vote and can use it massively at election time to put in place the government we want. The fact that the electorate has voted for change from time to time, bringing in alternating political parties or alliances to power, demonstrates amply that it can be critical and will exercise its judgment whensoever required.

However the electorate can do little in between elections. Once it has voted a government to power, there is little it can do to force it to make the government fulfill the promises as laid out in its programme, save to protest and express its discontent if warranted. The electorate does not have any control on either the party in power or its representatives in the Assembly. Parliamentarians can switch parties in the course of a mandate without the electors having any say in their decisions.

As for the promises, which remain unfulfilled, there may be a number of reasons. Members of the Assembly get into power on the strength of promises listed in their programmes, which they might not have studied at all and only later do they become aware of the difficulties of implementation. Even when they set up committees to study certain issues, they may have lacked all the information when in opposition and, once they take office, they find a different situation from what they had expected it to be.

On the other hand, the public knows quite well that what politicians promise may not be fulfilled but the electorate will keep on voting for them usually by default due to limited choices amongst the parties. To say that the electorate has limited choice is inaccurate because in any constituency there are more than two parties or alliances as well as a number of independent candidates. The choice of the electorate is never limited, but it is the electorate which denies itself the choice of voting for other parties or individuals.

One has to admit that what motivates electors to vote for one party instead of another has a number of explanations. Major factors which influence voting choice include class, personalities of candidates, ethnicity, caste, parties, and popular measures and, most importantly, the electorate focuses on the choice of the next Prime Minister. Among all these factors, there is little which is directly related to measures meant to progress towards a more democratic society. There have been measures designed to make society more democratic such the setting up of an Equal Opportunity Commission, the Human Rights Commission, Appeal Tribunals and other institutions which uphold the rule of just law.

At this stage of our democracy, there is a need for more laws and measures to advance the democratic cause. We still lack a Freedom of Information law; there are delays in the delivery of justice, and little accountability on the part of public officers and parliamentarians. There is still no consensus in the population regarding the instruments required to make government and society more democratic. The electorate is also divided on a number of other important issues such as Proportional Representation, a new Constitution or new economic and social rights.

Disagreement on these important issues rests on the fact that politics in Mauritius is still perceived as a zero sum game where there are winners and losers. Those who do not benefit from the Best Loser system have no qualms about its abolition. On the other hand, those who do not benefit from Proportional Representation are opposed to its introduction. Many feel that a new Constitution is not justified while others think that we have to scrap the present Constitution and build something anew. Most of these disagreements have to do with the fact that there is a profound mistrust among our different communities on these issues. It may be true that this mistrust operates only at an abstract level, but that does not hinder intercourse or cooperation at community and individual levels.

The mistrust which is both class- and ethnic-based is a major obstacle to further democratising the system. This mistrust is not totally abstract but forms part of a historical continuum that is still perpetuated upto the present day more particularly in both its class and ethnic aspects. Some groups feel that they cannot let go the control of the State and of its resources for fear of becoming the pariah in the country. They argue their case on the ground that, on the other side of the divide, the economic elite has resisted any form of economic democratisation. Consequently, on both sides of the divide, each holds tightly to what it has. Thus, the zero sum game attitudes persist and our democratic progress is brought to a halt.

The younger generations who want to make society more democratic should ponder on the various obstacles outlined in this article. They should provide answers to the concerns, both articulated and unarticulated, of the electorate before drafting a blueprint for the future. These obstacles should not deter them in their quest for a fair and more egalitarian society.

The electorate can and has the power to bring radical changes to the system but a radical programme should not deal with peripherals such as reducing per diem or preventing a relative from being a candidate in the same party but address fundamental economic issues such as including economic and other social rights in our Constitution, the right to employment, housing, universal pension but also measures to increase the wealth of the country to ensure a fairer distribution.

In the 1940s, the development of our democracy was accompanied by the building of a welfare state; in the 1970s, further advances made for the democratisation of workers’ rights; in the 21st century, further advances in our democracy must be accompanied by a radical programme to tackle the problems affecting the working classes.

S. Chidambaram

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