Electoral reform: Do our political leaders mean business?

By SR Balgopal

Electoral reform has sprung to the top of the political agenda with the onset of the departure of the MSM from the Alliance de L’Avenir. It is well documented that electoral reform has been the subject matter of several meetings involving the leaders of the leading parties in Mauritius over the last few days.

The question which arises is whether this is an appropriate time and occasion to consider electoral reform and whether all the proper steps been taken before embarking on such meetings?

True it is the Government Programme 2010-2015 clearly sets out that electoral reform is high on the agenda of the present government. Paragraphs 5 and 6 of the Government Programme read as follows:

“5. The Constitution we inherited from the founding fathers of the nation has served us well. However, no matter how well our institutions may be seen to be functioning, they need to be adjusted to help the country face new challenges. We need a constitutional regime that will strengthen our democracy, promote nation-building and further entrench the fundamental rights and freedom of all Mauritians.
6. As part of this process of constitutional review, Government will start wide ranging consultations and will appoint a team of constitutional experts which will assess the application of the Constitution since 1968 and consider the appropriate constitutional reforms, including the reform of our electoral system.”

It is undisputed that the Government Programme makes it clear that such reform will be carried out in the wider context of a constitutional review and in the light of wide ranging consultations and after a team of constitutional experts has been appointed to study the existing Constitution and consider “appropriate reforms, including reform of our electoral system.”

The Prime Minister stated in a reply to a Parliamentary Question (PQ) by Hon Obeegadoo on 3 August 2010 that:

“As I have stated in a recent past, Government will engage in a process of consultations and appoint a team of constitutional experts which will assess the application of the Constitution since independence and consider the appropriate constitutional reforms, including the reform of our electoral system. In fact preliminary consultations on the reforms have already started internally.

I should also add that when the previous Government was there, they appointed Mr Sachs and he made very pertinent comments on part of the reform that we should think of. At this stage, no precise time frame can be set. However, I wish to reassure the House that the issue of constitutional reforms appears high on the agenda of this Government’s Programme”

No later than on 22 March 2011, in another reply to a PQ to Hon Ganoo, the Prime Minister had this to say:

“In fact, the former Government elected in 2000 set up a Commission on Constitutional and Electoral reform under the chairmanship of Justice Albie Sachs of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. However, nothing came out of it because of disagreements between the partners in Government.

We intend to have further consultations with Constitutional experts both international and local.

In this regard, Professor Carcassone, who is a French Constitutional expert, will be in Mauritius in mid April so that he can give us his preliminary views on the matter.

He will be given a copy of the Sachs Report as well.

Once the preliminary consultations with these constitutional lawyers have taken place, then we shall be in a position to have consultations among the different political parties in the National Assembly as well as invite the views of others.

Therefore, as I explained before, no precise time-frame can be set. However, I strongly believe that if we are to embark on electoral reform, it should not come on the eve of the next general elections in 2015. Otherwise, it might appear as if we are changing the goal posts just prior to the general elections. The whole purpose is to strengthen democracy not weaken it.”

From the above replies made in Parliament by the Prime Minister, the following conclusions may be reached:

(a) constitutional experts, both local and international would be consulted before discussions on electoral reforms are made at a political level;
(b) electoral reforms will be studied in the wider context of constitutional reforms;
(c) no precise time-frame can be given for the electoral reforms;
(d) the MSM and the MMM previously disagreed on electoral reforms when they were in government together;

Prior to the above, the Prime Minister also gave an insight into his views about electoral reform when he replied to a PNQ by the Leader on 25 March 2008. The question and its initial reply are reproduced below to give an idea of the context in which electoral and constitutional reform should be seen:

“The Leader of the Opposition (Mr P. Bérenger) (By Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister, Minister of Defence and Home Affairs, Minister of Civil Service & Administrative Reforms and Minister of Rodrigues & Outer Islands whether in regard to the electoral reform, he will state –

(a) when and how he intends to consult political parties thereon;
(b) if he has recently received a document thereon prepared by the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Finance and Economic Development and, if so, whether he will circulate same;
(c) what he intends to propose in regard to –
(i) the best loser system;
(ii) Rodrigues, and
(iii) women’s increased presence in Parliament, and
(d) if a draft Bill to amend the Constitution has been prepared.

The Prime Minister: Mr Speaker, Sir, with your permission I will reply to this question as well as Questions B/23 and B/27 together, as they relate to the same subject.

As regards part (a) of the Private Notice Question, I have, in my recent address to the nation on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of our independence, already announced that the Government will, this year itself, start a process of consultation, with all political parties, on the reform of our electoral system.

As I said in my replies to previous PQs on this subject, I firmly believe that the best way to proceed is to try to reach as broad a consensus as possible among all stakeholders. I say as broad as possible, Mr Speaker, Sir, for it is obviously never possible to reach complete consensus. An electoral change is more than just a technical exercise. It is a comprehensive political process that requires careful consensus building. It is essential, therefore, to launch an extensive debate before bringing amendments to such fundamental aspects of our democracy. After all, Mr Speaker Sir, the Sachs Commission has itself highlighted that, and I quote –

‘It is fundamental that the debate on constitutional questions itself be free and fair, and that there be as much public engagement in the process as possible.’

The Commission has emphasised that its recommendations mark “the starting, rather than the end-point of a debate on how best to upgrade the Mauritian Constitution and electoral process”.

The Government will, therefore, start and steer the process and facilitate the involvement of major political parties in the initial stages of the consultation process. I am proposing, Mr Speaker, Sir, to start the consultation soon after the 1st of May of this year. I am expecting all stakeholders to make their contribution to the debate. I can only hope that this time the conditions would be there for us to move forward with the reform of our electoral system, so as to consolidate democracy.

As regards part (b) of the Question, indeed, I have received the document prepared by the hon. Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Finance & Economic Development on electoral reform. In fact, Mr Speaker, Sir, I should say that we worked a lot together when I went to depone in front of the Sachs Commission. So, we have already done a lot of background work.

But, again, he has prepared another document further to our discussion, and I have received that document. This document contains some well researched views expressed by the hon. Minister on the process of electoral reforms.

But this document is not meant for circulation, Mr Speaker, Sir.

Regarding part (c) of the Question, I consider that the best loser system has outlived its usefulness, even though it has served us well. In view of the plurality and diversity of our country, we think that the new system should subsume the current best loser system, giving adequate parliamentary representation to all components of our rainbow nation. As I said in my address to the nation, Mr Speaker, Sir, for the 40th anniversary of our independence, it has to be a system that ensures adequate parliamentary representation to all components of our rainbow nation. As far as Rodrigues is concerned, being part of Mauritius, we will ensure that it continues to be adequately represented in Parliament.

Regarding the increased presence of women in Parliament, I should like to inform the House that when I deponed before the Sachs Commission, my party was the only party which made a proposal for a substantial increase in women parliamentary representation.

Mr Speaker, Sir, we remain committed to this agenda of gender fairness. Regarding part (d) of the Question, any amendment to the Constitution for electoral reform–I am sure the hon. Leader of the Opposition will agree with me – can only be made in the light of the outcome of the consultations that I propose to initiate shortly.

Mr Speaker, Sir, let me reassure the House and through the House, the people of Mauritius – that must be clear – that we are not changing the current first past the post system. We are adding on to it, but we are not changing.”

The reply of the Prime Minister to the PNQ in 2008 shows that:

(a) The Prime Minister believes that extensive consultations should be made before changing the electoral system;
(b) The first past the post system will be supplemented, not superseded;
(c) There should be consensus building before embarking on political reform.

What warrants particular attention is the fact that as far as we are aware no team of local or international constitutional experts has been constituted to look into electoral reforms and prior to any recommendations being made by constitutional experts, political leaders in Mauritius have deemed it fit to discuss about electoral reforms. The timing of such discussions is unfortunate as an issue as fundamental electoral reform cannot be discussed without wide-ranging consultations being held, without getting experts and the population fully involved.

The population needs to be reassured that it will not be sacrificed on the altar of political interests, otherwise, shamelessly referred to as “intérêt supérieur du pays” by our political class when it comes to changing the electoral system in Mauritius. Politicians, in theory, are elected to serve the population rather than putting their petty and temporary interests first. Recent events have shown us what our political class is capable of. The public should be wary of leaders of political parties who could not agree on fundamental aspects of electoral reform who now so conveniently appear to be managing to iron out fundamental points of disagreement over a few days only. 

* Published in print edition on 19 August 2011

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