The Last Straw

Without the people’s formal approval, there cannot be an electoral reform contrived behind their back. To do so is to trigger a scathing backlash from the electorate

By Mrinal Roy

On Monday last, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced in a statement to the House of Commons that she was postponing the final vote on her Brexit deal  with the European Union after it became evident that she would face a humiliating defeat with the risk of up to 100 Tory MPs voting against her. On Wednesday she won a vote of no confidence from Tory MPs by 200 votes to 117 votes against. She would now have to submit the final Brexit deal for a vote in Parliament by 16 January 2019 after discussions with the EU to address objections raised on various issues.

Anybody watching the incisive questioning of Prime Minister May by MPs from both sides of the House live on TV on Monday following her statement cannot but laud the high standard of debate, democratic process, decorum and participation of MPs on such a momentous and game changing issue as Brexit, for the people of Britain. After each reply from Theresa May, scores of MPs from both sides of the aisle stood up to seek the permission of the Speaker to question the Prime Minister. There was no subservience to party diktats or kowtowing to the government or party leader’s line on something so vital to the future prospects of the United Kingdom and its people. As true representatives of the people, MPs democratically questioned the terms of the Brexit Agreement and grilled the PM thereon.

Two and half years after the Brexit referendum in June 2016, the United Kingdom now faces a major crisis as the terms of the Brexit divorce treaty are widely contested and rejected by a large number of MPs, less than four months  before the UK is due to leave the European Union on 29 March 2019. Amidst all the turmoil and uncertainty, the European Court of Justice has ruled that the UK can cancel Brexit without the permission of the other 27 EU members and without altering the terms of Britain’s membership.

There are also calls for the people to have their say on the Brexit terms by referendum. In a context of profound division within the country caused by Brexit, it is vitally important that there should be a broad consensus from the main parties and the people on a matter of such importance to the future of the United Kingdom. A simple majority would not do.

Subpar standards

In contrast, the level of parliamentary democracy, debate and parliamentary behaviour in the local National Assembly are patently a far cry from the lofty standards prevailing in the UK Parliament. The latest example of the deplorable state of governance is the shocking decision not to sanction a government MP allegedly caught sending lewd messages and indecent photographs from a mobile phone in breach of the ICTA rules from the precinct of the Assembly while the Assembly was sitting, despite ‘the considered view of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions that a prima facie case of contempt of the National Assembly has been disclosed by the Police Inquiry.’  For the people, this is the last straw.

 The people’s approval

On an issue of such national importance as the Bill on electoral reform, the people expected their MPs to demand that the electoral reform proposals be first examined and approved by referendum by the people before proceeding.  They expected, as in the case of Brexit, MPs to express their views independently and be their voice on such a vital element of our democracy in the country. There was no constructive debate or a call for the setting up of an independent Constituent Assembly elected by the people to review with the help of internationally known constitutional jurists the Constitution in a holistic rather than a piecemeal manner.  Instead MPs of the various parties subserviently toed their party leader’s line.

On issues such as constitutional reform, it is important that there is a broad consensus in the country on any changes being proposed, which goes beyond the statutory requirement of three quarters majority.  In a context where the government is unable to rally the minimum requirement of 52 MPs on its Bill and has postponed a vote thereon, it would be anathema to horse trade a deal behind the back of the people with other parties on proposals which are fundamentally flawed and widely decried by the people, who are closely monitoring developments and biding their time. The government should remember that such political deals have led to the ignominious defeat of the Labour-MMM alliance at the December 2014 general elections. There is nothing historic about such decried reform proposals.

The paramount rule must be that it is the people who are the sole arbiter of any changes to our Constitution and the electoral system. MPs cannot usurp this unalienable prerogative. The ire and backlash of voters against the decried governance and policies of incumbent governments have a direct bearing on the outcome of elections and the margin of victory as evidenced for example in 1982, 1995, 2005 or 2014. In a democracy the vote of the people remains absolute. The people’s sovereign vote of censure mirrored in these results cannot thus be perceived as distortions caused by the electoral system. We cannot therefore bridle the people’s scathing sanction and democratic backlash against unpopular governments with contested PR proposals.

Playing God

For the mainstream citizen, the various proposals and analyses made by the local high priests of proportional representation (PR) in the country hinges on communal politics and delegating even more power to omnipotent party leaders. Instead of consolidating nationhood, the proposals encourage division through the abject balkanization of the people. A recent analysis of PR modalities springs out the flabbergasting proposal of at least 12 groups or subgroups that have to be taken on board to reflect diversity in the PR lists, its rankings and presumably in the allocation of additional seats by the leaders of eligible parties. On saucissonne la nation.  Seriously.

The four communities used for the specific purpose of the Best Loser System (BLS) are being increased threefold.  Omnipotent party leaders will be asked to play God. They will not only subjectively decide on who gets in their PR list and their ranking but also who is allocated an additional seat. Such a patently subjective exercise is bound to create more acrimony and angst from those not chosen. Such a decried system is a perverse travesty of democracy.

Such a disputed system also enshrines a disconnect between the nominated MP and the electors, discourages accountability and renders the MP subservient to the party leader

The Supreme Court of India has systematically rejected claims by diverse groups to be given a

special status under the Constitution. The driver of nationhood is unity not division.

 Only one community

There is only one community in the country: the Mauritian community. An MP should represent all the electors in his constituency and not only a section of it. Leo Varadkar, the Prime Minister of Ireland does not represent Irish born Asians but the Irish people. A South Asian MP in the UK represents his British electors not his community. The African American President Barack Obama was the President of all Americans.

As a democratic nation, we cannot accept the narrow mindset (which has trapped the leaders of political parties for too long) that only a person of a particular community can safeguard the interests of that community. Such an approach is a recipe for entrenched division. It cannot foster nationhood.  There should obviously be merit based diversity among the candidates fielded by parties.  However, elected MPs who pander to the parochial interests of their own community should be chastised.

The people are already a nation. It is the politicians who spawn, nurture and thrive on division to obtain political mileage.

Whatever be our take on the BLS, we should remember that it was part of the agreement endorsed by all parties.  It is enshrined in the Constitution and has helped assure the enduring stability of the country during the 50 years since independence. We cannot upset the applecart by forcing those who take comfort from the assurances, transparency, predictability and historical record of the system to replace it by a contested mechanism dissociated from the vote of the people and arbitrarily and subjectively managed by party leaders. In short, a system which replaces the independent and precise calculation to identify the best loser MPs on the basis of the actual votes polled by the arbitrary and subjective nomination of MPs.

Trojan Horse

We should also remember that the core problem which has to be cured is the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) view ‘that the continued maintenance of the requirement of the mandatory classification of a candidate for general elections without the corresponding updated figures of community affiliation of the Mauritian population in general would appear to be arbitrary and in violation of article 25 of the Covenant’. The UNHRC asked the state ‘to update the 1972 census with regard to community affiliation and to consider whether the community based electoral system is still necessary.’ The UNHRC message is clear as to what we should do.

The UNHRC comment relates solely to the 8 seats of the BLS. The local proponents of PR want to use the UNHRC views to introduce PR through the back door. It is clear that those that have benefitted from the BLS want to maintain it in the electoral system. The outdated and artificially frozen 1972 census are rightly no longer deemed, as stipulated in the Constitution, ‘fair and adequate’. The question then boils down logically to using instead the most updated census figures available at Statistics Mauritius.

Without the people’s formal approval, there cannot be an electoral reform contrived behind their back. To do so is to trigger a scathing backlash from the electorate. This week, the people’s angry protests have forced President Macron to backpedal. Similarly, in India, the people’s democratic vote has elected the Congress Party in three states held by the ruling BJP party.  The people remain vigilant and determined to safeguard their prerogatives. Politicians must remember that it is the people who call the shots and that their paramount will prevails at all times.

* Published in print edition on 14 December 2018

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