“The proposals for an FPTP-cum-PR system, as embodied in the White Paper, require a broad national consensus and a clear-headed recognition of its limitations and drawbacks, as the changes in the pipeline will tie us in for future generations…
Some perceive or have openly wished for an LP-MMM alliance that would enable those constitutional changes in a pacified atmosphere. Whatever the outcome of consultations, others may feel that change of such magnitude in our electoral system should indeed be sanctioned by some form of voter consent…”
The case for evolution of our First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system in the light of its major shortcoming (most crucially, modest voter mood swings leading to disproportionate swings in the National Assembly, occasionally causing acute under-representation) together with the mandatory need to specify community affiliation for electoral candidacy and operation of the up-to-8 Best Loser corrective seats, has been amply made.
It is justified both by experience gathered over several general elections and by upcoming constitutional challenges over that mandatory community-based requirement. Several expert reports, including that of Dr Sithanen, have made the case for a degree of Proportional Representation (PR) so as to “subsume” and do away with the Best Loser Members of Parliament (MPs) without upsetting the social sphere and provide stable governments, albeit with less unbalanced electoral outcomes in Parliament.
In an astute balancing act, the PM’s White Paper has shifted more complex or vexatious reform issues to an unspecified future, ably and remarkably focusing on the essence of those proposed electoral changes, while leaving some questions open for public and political consultations: the number of PR seats, their mode of selection, (through closed, open or mixed Party lists), the qualifying threshold for PR seat allocation and double-presence on PR and constituency lists.
Last week I wrote that “we are of age, the time is ripe” but expressed concern over some aspects, namely the PR-MP coming out of a Party List. Several authorised voices have been critical on these and other issues associated with the Reform proposal outlined.
Let’s take some time to examine the “new kid on the block” that’s likely to emerge from a consensus on the White Paper: the PR-MP. All 16 of them, (Eric Guimbeau says that’s much too high), to add to our flock of 62 Constituency MPs. And the implications thereof.
We had somehow grown used to the latter, our veteran Constituency MP, admiring those among them who selflessly run up and down their constituencies, spend time, energy and resources to hear, assuage and help their flocks, even if and when their ministerial obligations leave them little time on a busy schedule, who have to campaign down every village street at election time!
We, at constituency level, can scrutinize their foibles and their qualities, their “profile” and party position, their adequacy for the job of representing us, in short, they have our trust, a local mandate. Even if they are troubled by affairs and allegations, even when they are “Best Loser MPs”, even when they face hard choices between conflicting loyalties to party or to their conscience and “mandants”, they have undoubted elected legitimacy at constituency level. They have feet, and sometimes legs, arms and ears on the ground!
Many countries have PR-MPs and PR at other levels than general elections without undue qualms. But our local context, history and experience shows that we need to understand the new kid on the block that is being proposed, the PR-MP, before embracing a change that could have far-reaching permanent implications. Change is necessary, and if the White Paper’s reform proposal is the only way forward, we should do so with our eyes wide open and acknowledge that there is a price to pay for such Reform.
What are the discomforts we and future generations are being asked to live with?
1. Party leaders have naturally a determinant say on the selection of constituency candidates; extending that commanding position to 16 PR-MPs, and, if we consider Mr Berenger’s formula that a number of those to be post-election Leader-nominated MPs, concern has been expressed that we will be definitely consolidating the power wielded by Party leaders, for the near and long-term future.
2. Many may admire the courage and difficulties faced by Party or Alliance Leaders who periodically have to go through the usual bartering, lobbying and “coustics” to accommodate all sensibilities and profiles in finalising the constituency-based 60 candidates list. Imagine the onslaught when they face even more lobbying for inclusion on the sinecure 16 member PR-list, and at a safe position (i.e. on the top rungs). As for the prospect of further intense lobbying for post-electoral Leader-nominated MPs, the prospect is simply nerve-wracking!
3. PR-MPs, however costly to maintain, will have no Constituency mandate, no electorate to answer to, no loyalty other than to their party or alliance leader. In a way, they won’t have been elected as much as selected! We will be disenfranchised, having basically no say on how and on what merits they got into Parliament. How will they react when cases of conflicting loyalties arise, which past experience says could easily happen tomorrow? And if a PR-MP has been appointed Cabinet minister, will his loyalty go to the Party leader or the sitting PM? There are grounds to suspect foreseeable difficulties ahead.
4. The rationale of anti-defection provisions for PR-MPs nominated and selected by their Party Leader is understandable but requires careful crafting to discourage “transfuges” and floor-crossing without straight-jacketing PR-MPs into being simple line-toeing rubber-stamps of their Party. The question can be complex since Parties in an Alliance registered with the Electoral Commission, may have no legal status or claim on their PR-MP should the Alliance dissolve de facto after elections. One can foresee different scenarios which could lead to lengthy political, legal and constitutional challenges.
5. The other provisions included in the White Paper clearly orient our political system towards a two-major-party state and reduce the “blackmailing” power of smaller parties riding piggy-back and punching far above their weight.
6. The preliminary discussions around the White Paper reveal that our Constituencies were somehow “gerrymandered” at birth to make sure some small-sized constituencies would return MPs of one specific community or another. Coupled with the Best Loser system and multi-member constituencies, the intent was to reassure and assuage all sectors of the population at a difficult transition period. The White Paper proposes not to address the issue in the PR + FPTP proposal, a wise decision so long as the ratio between the smallest and largest constituencies does not get unreasonable, say a 1:2 ceiling for the Electoral Boundaries Commission.
Clearly, no electoral system is perfect and the question remains, are there alternatives to the two chief drawbacks of the current FPTP system? If not, the proposals for an FPTP-cum-PR system, as embodied in the White Paper, require a broad national consensus and a clear-headed recognition of its limitations and drawbacks, as the changes in the pipeline will tie us in for future generations.
Equally clearly, they require alignment of the two major political parties and convergence between their leaders. Some perceive or have openly wished for an LP-MMM alliance that would enable those constitutional changes in a pacified atmosphere. Whatever the outcome of consultations, others may feel that change of such magnitude in our electoral system should indeed be sanctioned by some form of voter consent.
* Published in print edition on 11 April 2014