The agenda for a reform of our electoral system as sketched out in the White Paper will soon be reaching a major turning point with the scheduled end of the public comment phase on the 5th of May.
Press reports have it that a considerable number of contributions have been received, which is a good sign for democracy.
The parallel consultations the PM plans to hold with the Leader of the Opposition on the one hand and with other party and opinion leaders on the other, constitute another healthy recognition that any proposed change has to be widely endorsed. If a consensus on general terms is reached in the coming weeks, it would be for the two main party leaders to consider the advisability or not of having the legislative proposals submitted for public approval before or after elections, when the population may be asked to sanction such a historic change for the country.
There are many things to be said in favor of the FPTP + PR reform proposed including the end of the obligatory community declaration for electoral needs (and here ‘Rezistans Ek Alternativ’ have to be commended for their long battle), the attenuation of massive electoral swings in Parliament through two-party alliances or modest voter mood swings) and the opportunity for more participation of the fairer gender in the political arena. It should ensure stable governing outcomes with some better representation of voter choices in Parliament.
The White Paper reform proposal has some drawbacks, which have been highlighted here and elsewhere. Increasing the control exercised by party leaders, no concrete measures proposed to resolve or at least offset the wide disparities between constituencies, the uncharted territory represented PR-MPs who won’t have any constituency mandate and their exclusive loyalty to their party or alliance leader, are all matters of concern. So is the increased number of Parliamentarians paid of public purse, specially those not elected in constituencies. Reform comes with a price tag which needed to be flagged.
To this end it may be wise to ensure in the Reform legislation envisaged that far stricter measures and yardsticks be applied to PR-MPs than to those who are legitimately elected through the constituency balloting and battlegrounds. We should be able to expect that all candidates on any PR list have assets declaration before elections (and after tenure), have a clean morality sheet and should not have been convicted or under trial or appeal for criminal offenses. It seems like a minimum probity safeguard for people we are not directly electing into Parliament and may even end up as “unelected” Ministers.
They should receive the basic allowance of constituency MPs without all the perks, pension and other benefits the former enjoy, which is perhaps a fair reflection of their constituency responsibilities. I seem to recall a recent Defi-Plus issue highlighting that the basic MP salary of about Rs 65,000 reaches more than Rs 145,000 when all benefits are compiled. There are no legitimate reasons why backbencher PR-MPs, without a constituency to campaign for and attend to, should engross themselves at public expense.
Should they also, on whatever list, be limited to one tenure at this fairly sinecure position? By the same token, and if additionally, the risks of governing instability are taken into account, we utterly fail to approve more than a dozen of those “unelected” MPs gravitating in the National Assembly through party patronage and party list position. The White Paper’s proposal for 16 of them seems a maximum rather than a minimum.
Changing political allegiances during their mandate should be disallowed, although the mechanism has to be well-drafted to account for the fact that only political parties, or more frequently, alliances have electoral standing with the Electoral Commission. A dissolved alliance after elections should not leave PR-MPs astray, with undefined allegiance. As for the qualifying threshold for PR allotment, political leaders have to thrash it out but the figure of 7.5% seems a fair compromise in the wider interest.
* * *
The MedPoint Saga
Everybody must have been relieved to learn last month that Hon Pravind Jugnauth will have the opportunity to defend himself in the case of conflict of interest in the Medpoint Clinic purchase, an affair where, up to now, only several high public officers have been blamed and which Mr Berenger dubbed the “scandal of the century”. Investigations, through no apparent fault of ICAC, have been consistently delayed, despite the attentive gaze of the civil service and the population. The relief is that the case can now be heard in all fairness before an independent judiciary rather than from soap-boxes, press conferences and media pundits bristling with unmistakable political overtones.
Almost two years ago, in a joint press conference with his political partner, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, Mr Berenger stoutly claimed that the newly-reborn MSM-MMM Alliance would demand a “very early trial” for Hon Jugnauth. Two months ago, a nonplussed Berenger, flying against evidence, again bravely stuck his neck out saying that the Opposition would demand an “early trial” for his junior alliance partner. After all, it was not illegitimate to expect Hon Jugnauth, as a citizen, an MP, a responsible political Party leader, a former Senior Minister and one who had voted in the Prevention of Corruption Act, to bite the bullet and hurry up the process of clearing his reputation in a court of law. Not to mention that a bit of bravado and panache might have earned him some kudos in the public.
In reality, the public is acutely aware that Hon Jugnauth, himself a lawyer, advised by a team of astute legal minds, has from the start adopted a defense strategy (to which he is perfectly eligible) which seems based on delaying tactics. As reconfirmed by their first day in court this week. A strategy consistently at odds with Mr Berenger’s political prism. Whatever Hon Jugnauth’s reasons, and they must be good ones, the pressure on Mr Berenger to continue looking either atrociously naïve or extremely generous towards “ti-frere” was bound to reach its limits.
* Published in print edition on 18 April 2014