Of “Inns” and “outs” – The Struggle for Electoral Reforms

We need a more democratic and a more inclusive society, and we share the sense of righteous indignation of those who are impatient to see a new political order taking shape. But this cannot be achieved if electoral reforms are cast on the basis of an ‘in v/s out’ divide, and the remedy may prove more lethal than the ills

Politics is about power. Many would certainly agree, and those who do agree tend to dignify their motivation with such pompous phrases like ‘serving the country’, patriotism and even with a euphemistic claim that they love their country. Such claims normally are an inherent part of a communication strategy to build trust, support and win credibility. However, when they are put in their context, and their processes and practices are eventually unravelled, they emerge severely mangled.

We need politics and we also need politicians. We may also agree that we need a dose of electoral reform with a view to correcting the distortions of our electoral system and which presently vitiates our democratic system and hinders the development of an inclusive society. We have a very long way to go from a formal democratic system to a genuine democracy just like we have a much longer road to travel before we can reconfigure our economic system to make it fair for all.

Proposals for electoral reforms have come in various guises, some seeking to make election results reflect faithfully the wishes of the electorate, others to abolish the Best Loser system and so on. Unfortunately the proponents of electoral reforms cannot free themselves from the pernicious divide in the Mauritian electorate and partisan politics — in other words from those things and/or people that are considered as the “ins” and the “outs” of politics.

The “ins” refer to those who exercise power within the power structure, and the “outs” are those who do not exercise such powers explicitly notwithstanding the fact that a tiny segment of the “outs” have always monopolised all economic power. The “ins” are no different in their ‘control of politics’ but have nevertheless laboured long and hard in favour of a policy of power (and resource) redistribution. That, however, has met with relatively minor success.

But the two forms of power are fundamentally different. One gives you a sense of power and status but that will not necessarily save you from famine. The other eschews symbolic power but can buy all the food they need even when there is no food on the market.

On the periphery

Political power includes positions at the highest level of the state and state institutions. These positions are invested upon ordinary men and women who would thus imagine that they are in, while, in fact, they are merely standing on the periphery. The “outs” represent all those who have made oppositional politics their brand, ranging from the leaders in opposition parties, deputies and the conglomerates. That also includes ordinary men and women who are in but who, through a process of self-denial, choose rather to be out to enjoy the crumbs left out on the table. The electoral reform hinges accordingly on a vicious struggle between the “ins” and the “outs”.

There are also individuals, communities and political parties which feel they are out but aspire to be in. Having failed repeatedly to attain their objective through successive elections, their final and desperate hope is to be able to make it thanks to electoral reform. But the “ins” have dug in their heels. Those who do not need Best Losers have also no need for electoral reforms. Religious leaders or other individuals who live in ivory towers and who do not vote or have no stake in the future of the country can be for or against, according to the way the wind is blowing.

Those who need Best Losers also want to remain in. Those who have one foot in and the remaining body out seek to be fully in. Since the “ins” feel, rightly or wrongly, that electoral reforms are going to be a zero sum game, they would not like to lose out and be out altogether. So one can expect a struggle to the last ditch from the top to the grassroots.

A perfect world

No one can grudge the young people advocating electoral reform and dreaming of a perfect world, without Best Losers, the abolition of communities, even families on the altar of individualism in an imaginary ‘secular’ Mauritius, abstracted from 18th century European rationality. One will subscribe to many of their wishes for more democratic party structures and election results that reflect rather proportionately the wishes of the young people and of the citizens generally for a stable and forward-looking Mauritius.

The young would like to see quality deputies and ministers and decision makers and may be also quality citizens though they might find themselves unwittingly becoming the adepts of some form of Social Darwinism. They are neither in nor out, and they imagine a future when they will all be in. Luckily they are not the ones leaving the country and the onus will be on them to realise their dreams. Some dreams become true, some do not. For the young, the plausibility or feasibility of what they think is right is not yet an important concern. They are not always realistic in their expectations.

Surprisingly, it is not only the young who are dreaming; the older generation has also been dreaming of abolishing the Best Loser System or introducing Proportional Representation. They have had the opportunity to do it in the past — but they failed miserably. They want to be young again and are building up utopias. In other words, in the past some have realised their personal small, little dreams; others have not, with the consequence that they have since become Utopians. Unfortunately, they lack both the brain and muscle power to make any impact.

Even their wide and rich experience, gained in a lost world, has become obsolete in today’s fast changing society. But what they do not seem to realise is that all the good things as well as the ills they find in modern society have mostly been of their own making. In the past when they were the decision makers they had not been proactive enough to mitigate those ills. When they did try, they had failed miserably. It is therefore better to leave the young to sort out the mess they have landed into through no fault of theirs and let the older generation cherish a golden age that did not exist.

Political nests

Finally women have been battling for decades for their right to obtain wider parliamentary representation. They too wield sufficient power to feather their political nests – after all they form the majority of the electorate and they can usher in a silent revolution through electoral reforms or otherwise anytime they want. Yet they stay out because they have yet to start the war against patriarchy and all the man-made religions and cultures that subjugate them. The challenges facing women are daunting, and it will take a long time before they can put up a fight and win an electoral reform that give them their legitimate power to be in. The manner in which they will obtain that victory will be more important than the victory itself.

If our understanding of electoral reforms reflects a politically incorrect scenario of a struggle between the “ins” and the “outs”, we are afraid that we may have to forget about electoral reforms before or after the next elections. No electoral reform will be successfully implemented if it turns out to be simply a zero sum game merely for power’s sake — whether at the level of the party, community or the individual — or if it eclipses heterogeneity or historical specificity however much we package it as a ‘historical’ achievement.

We need a more democratic and a more inclusive society, and we share the sense of righteous indignation of those who are impatient to see a new political order taking shape. But this cannot be achieved if electoral reforms are cast on the basis of an ‘in v/s out’ divide, and the remedy may prove more lethal than the ills.

* Published in print edition on 27 July  2013

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