The Best Loser System:
To abolish or not to abolish?
— Surendra Bissoondoyal
An electoral reform cannot be just an academic exercise. In a democratic set up it has to address both the aspirations and the apprehensions of the people. Equality of opportunity is the central pillar upholding the aspirations of each individual in any society. But is equality of opportunity perceived to exist in Mauritius? Is employment in both the private and public sectors based on competence and merit?
The general perception is that this is, to a large extent, determined by complexion and connection in the private sector and “political backing” in the public sector.
Malcolm de Chazal, our national visionary, once said: “A Maurice on cultive la canne à sucre et les préjugés”. Will the Equal Opportunities Act change the perception that some people are more equal than others? It is this perception that makes minorities in particular — we are all minorities anyway, as Sir Kher Jagatsing once said — feel insecure and want people of their own community to represent them as MPs or, better still, as Ministers, even if the latter are more interested in their own personal interests.
The perception that appointments in the public sector are not based on competence and merit is reinforced when we see many ‘roder boutte’ being appointed to high positions in sectors which are under the purview of ministers. If we want to get rid of the Best Loser System (BLS) we will first have to ensure that politicians have no say in appointments. We talk about becoming the Singapore of the Indian Ocean, but we refuse to follow its policy of insistence on meritocracy.
The BLS came into existence after the Labour Party and the IFB fought against a proposal to have separate electoral rolls for different communities at the 1965 Constitutional Conference in London. The example of the IFB candidate Abdool Wahab Foondun being elected in the predominantly Hindu (single member) constituency of Bon Accueil served to bury the proposal. Sir Abdool Razack Mohamed, leader of the CAM, then had the support of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and Sookdeo Bissoondoyal for the BLS.
The issues of ethnicity and religion have sparked riots and wars in many countries. We should not forget how India, Ireland and some other countries were split along ethnic and religious lines and how such issues keep cropping up even in modern times. When India won its independence from Britain in 1947 there were about 400,000 Anglo-Indians out of a total population of 400 million. Even then the Indian Constitution provided for 2 reserved seats for them in the National Assembly (Lok Sabha) and one seat in each of six State (Regional) Assemblies where they were most concentrated. This was to give them a sense of belonging to India. This reservation still exists today.
The objective of the BLS was to give all communities a sense of adequate representation. We have of course to review different sections of our Constitution to respond to modern trends and to reinforce the concept of a Mauritian nation. It is time that we have a dose of Proportional Representation (PR) to correct the inequity of our First Past The Post (FPTP) system. It may well be that PR will make the BLS redundant, but we have to see how it works first. It would therefore be desirable to have a modified BLS for as long as necessary to continue to reassure all communities about their wish for an adequate representation. We cannot base ourselves on the census of 1972, which has become outdated, but we can take it as a guideline to provide for some representation in approximately the same proportion as the 1972 statistics. After filling the 82 seats (FPTP and PR) we can then add a dose of BLS. This will mean looking at roughly the same adequate entitlement (in terms of numbers) as at present but reducing the number of Best Losers to a maximum of four if this is required for the most under represented groups
Is declaration of religious group or ‘community’ incompatible with PR? There is no need to make it compulsory for all candidates to specify in which group they belong. Those who do not want to do that will simply not be considered under the BLS quota. But in a democracy they cannot impose their views on others. Mauritians can still take the oath as Hindus, Christians or Muslims. Do those who do not want to do that require that others also should not have the right to take the oath as they believe? Are we living in a democracy or a totalitarian state?
Mauritians emigrated ‘en masse’ when politicians painted a dark picture of what independent Mauritius would look like, and their place in a Hindu dominated society. Anglo-Indians also emigrated ‘en masse’ for the same reason until there were only about 150,000 left. Today many of the old ones are returning to India to retire and younger ones to work in the booming IT and Financial Services sectors. Collen Campbell, an Anglo-Indian lady poet, has put on paper what many of them now feel:
So no matter where I wander
And nor how far I roam
For something deep inside me
India always will be my home.
Is there a similar feeling among Mauritians who left the shores of Mauritius for greener pastures elsewhere? They would probably not need any BLS to entice them back. But the majority of young Mauritians who leave Mauritius for higher studies abroad do not want to come back, BLS or no BLS. They are more interested in their economic future.