“Voters’ silence should not be mistaken for voters’ indifference

Interview – Dharam Gokhool

Two mandates are long enough for voters to decide whether they are better off, whether promises have been kept…”

* ‘Be the change you want to see’ should become the mantra of the Opposition leaders, in both their words and actions. Only then will people vote for a regime change’

* Electoral petitions: ‘The Judiciary, and all other institutions, must ensure that justice is carried out without delay’

Former Minister of Education Dharam Gokhool gives his views on the withdrawal of his case in the Supreme Court by Cader Syed-Hossen, calling for the judiciary to recommend measures to speed the timely delivery of justice. He draws attention to the demographic decline that is affecting school intake and the falling standards in both the education and health sectors and is worried about a two-tier system that in both sectors – one for the rich and one for the poor. He also comments on the political situation in view of the next general election and argues for a restoration of the trust deficit in the electorate by an opposition that will bring about a turnaround on the basis of a genuine, robust and actionable programme.

Mauritius Times: Whatever the merit of his case, Cader Sayed-Hossen must have been right to have withdrawn the electoral petition against the election of MSM candidate Gilbert Bablee lodged in November 2019 and awaiting a judgement 12 months or probably more before the next elections. Along the way Justice Benjamin Marie Joseph, who was hearing the case together with Justice R. Seeetohul-Toolsee, went into retirement, and the case will now have to be taken anew. Mr Sayed-Hossen said he did not want to be “a party to this mockery of justice”. How do you react to that?

Dharam Gokhool: It was in the early 1600s that English philosopher and jurist Sir Edward Coke first used the phrase: Justice delayed is justice denied – iustitia differtur iustitia negatur. This phrase later became the guiding principle of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade against injustice in the USA.

The trial and tribulations and the fate of the Cader Sayed-Hossen electoral petition is a case in point.

The right to vote at elections is an integral part of the Constitution of the Republic of Mauritius. It is provided for under Section 44 of the constitution. After the elections, any aggrieved candidate has 21 days to file an electoral petition with the Supreme Court. Since November 28, 2019, the Cader Sayed-Hossen case has been before the Supreme Court. However, due to the retirement of the one of the judges hearing the case, a new panel of judges will need to hear the case afresh. It’s been four years now, and it’s unclear when a verdict will be rendered.

He would have felt proud of having battled for justice, regardless of the outcome, if the verdict had been delivered in a timely manner. But Cader Sayed-Hossen will have to bear a dreadful burden for the rest of his life. A very terrible situation. The experience must be painful for him, his loved ones, his friends, and his supporters.

This episode calls for deep soul-searching among our lawmakers and our judiciary, and urgent remedial action should be envisaged to prevent a repetition of the Cader Sayed-Hossen episode. The Republic of Mauritius cannot delay and/or deny justice to any citizen. One of the top priorities of a future government should be to ensure that the judiciary is provided with all the necessary resources and facilities for the timely delivery of justice.

* One would have expected that cases relating to electoral petitions would have been fast-tracked despite delaying tactics, if any, by lawyers of either parties. It’s obvious that any delay in the determination of electoral petitions will result in such petitions losing their relevance, isn’t it?

All institutions, including the judiciary and other organizations, are endowed with legal obligations, matching power, and the duty of accountability. A sense of priorities should direct how they manage their activities. This is especially true for organizations in the public sector that are supported by taxpayers’ money.

The Judiciary cannot be exempt from this obligation. The Judiciary, and all other institutions, must ensure that justice is carried out without delay because it is “one of the three pillars of our sovereign democratic State” and “is vested with the power to administer justice in the Republic of Mauritius” and because of the sacred principle of separation of powers.

About 10,108 cases remained unresolved by the end of 2022, and the trend is worsening. There is a mention of the necessity “to review procedures to expedite the disposal of cases” among the strategic goals of the judiciary (Judicial Branch Annual Report, 2022). This can’t just be wishful thinking, though. Justice must not only be done, but also be seen to be done, as the saying goes.

Election petitions directly affect how well a democratic state operates, how the rule of law is upheld, and how the Constitution is upheld. Given the unique nature of electoral petitions, any unnecessary delay will amount to tampering with the course of justice. Election petitions must be processed quickly; it is not only necessary, it is essential.

Therefore, it is appropriate that the judiciary review its internal procedures and processes and make appropriate recommendations to the lawmakers to legislate for the timely and speedy delivery of justice.

* One other issue which has made the headlines this week and which would be of particular interest to you: the drop in admission to secondary schools, in particular to public schools. 98,900 were enrolled in March 2023 (down from 102,722 in Oct. 2022), and 44.8% went to public schools against 55.2% who chose the private fee-paying schools. We are not aware if this is a normal phenomenon in developed countries with a burgeoning middle- or upper middle class, but what do these statistics tell you?

The decline in admissions in secondary schools is just the tip of a demographic iceberg. Mauritius is confronted with a very complex social, economic, and cultural challenge driven by the triple phenomenon of an aging population, a declining birth rate, and brain drain. This drop is a direct result of our birth rate declining.

The birth rate for Mauritius in 2021 was 10.026 births per 1000 people, a 0.72% decline from 2020. In 2022, the birth rate was 9.954 births per 1000 people, a 0.72% decline from 2021. The current birth rate for Mauritius in 2023 is 9.881 births per 1000 people, a 0.73% decline from 2022.

Clearly, fewer children being born results in a declining overall student population. This declining trend will persist due to a decline in the fertility rate, which will have an adverse effect on the likelihood of economic growth.

Regarding the rising trend in enrolment in private fee-paying schools, it is a sign that people’s opinions of public schools are becoming more negative as a result of a number of factors, including a decline in teaching and learning standards, a deterioration in school leadership and management, a rise in school indiscipline, and a growing understanding that a passing grade is not a reliable indicator of higher-quality academic performance. 

We also have to factor in the fact that parents who can afford to pay fees are opting for private fee-paying schools as they believe that these schools offer better facilities and better educational opportunities.

If the situation is allowed to persist, I’m concerned that we will end up with essentially two types of schools: public schools for the underprivileged and private fee-paying schools for the wealthy or those who can afford them. But the most important concern that should be on the minds of decision-makers and stakeholders in education is whether the education being offered by both types of schools is relevant to the challenges and transformations that the world is going through?

How dynamic proactive is the educational agenda being pursued by the majority of our schools — both private fee-paying and public ones? Is the education we provide our children and young people geared towards preparing them to live and work in the world of tomorrow?

* Most parents who have been to public schools rejoice every year to see public secondary schools taking the lion’s share from amongst the winners in the laureate scheme and their students generally performing quite well at O- and A-levels, but if the privatisation of education were to continue, the standard of public education is bound to fall, isn’t it?

Most private fee-paying and public schools follow the curricula and syllabi prescribed by Cambridge International. The annual percentage of passes at both O and A levels is either steady or registers a slight increase. But a scrutiny of the detailed marks obtained by learners shows a steady downward trend in the quality of performance. So, one must be careful not to interpret % pass as an improvement in quality of performance. The overall quality of education, both in private fee paying and public schools, is not improving.

But the fundamental issue that needs to be addressed by policy makers is the relevance of the current educational agenda and strategy, as I mentioned earlier. How can we address the current and future needs of learners by engaging them in the learning process?

*Do you see the same thing happening to the public health services? We see modern hospitals and mediclinics being built in different places, and more and more people paying for private medical care in an increasing number of private hospitals. That’s good for private entrepreneurship, but it’s said that when the middle class abandons public services, the quality of those services goes down. What’s your take on that?

There is a parallel to be drawn between the situation prevailing in both the education and health sectors. With all the money being spent on our public health system, is the health of the population improving?

The Annual Health Statistics Report 2022 presents a worrying state of affairs. Just like in the education sector, there is an emerging negative perception as far as the public health sector is concerned. Patients are turning to private health providers. “The total number of cases seen for treatment, including admissions, at private hospitals and clinics having in-patient services was 207,967 in 2022 compared to 206,849 in 2021; this represents a 0.5% increase”. (Health Statistics Report 2022)

More people will turn to costly private health care. Just like in the education sector, many taxpayers will be paying twice for their health care. Just like in the education sector, there is a commodification process taking place. If you have money, you can buy health.

This curative medicine logic will drive the market for private health in the years to come. A line of reasoning that contradicts the main goals of a healthcare system, which ought to be patient-centred and preventive in nature.

* On the political front, the widespread speculation about the imminence of general elections sometime before the end of year has taken a hit in view of the latest hike in petroleum products by the STC. No government would want to face the electorate in such circumstances. What is in your view the game plan of the MSM leader?

The MSM’s strategy is to win the next general elections and keep hold of power at any cost. The Prime Minister’s trump card is the timing of the elections. He will do everything to ensure that conditions are favourable before going to the polls. Barring unforeseen circumstances like an unfavourable verdict of the Privy Council in the Suren Dayal case, the MSM game plan will be articulated along three key missions:

  • Strike a favourable Diego deal with the British and Americans and secure additional financial support from the Indians for the use of the Agalega facilities
  • Destabilise the Opposition through its “Acheter Vender” stratagem
  • Rebuild its popularity through a series of targeted populist measures

A favourable interplay of these three moves will boost the confidence of the MSM and place it in a comfortable situation to face the electorate.

* On the other hand, it’s not likely to see any of the two blocs surfing on an electoral wave (popularly known here as “une vague”) to power next time round since there is none in sight. It can only happen on the strength of electoral arithmetic. How do you think this will play out at the end of the day?

The overall political landscape continues to be in a stalemate condition, with some 40% of the voters in a wait-and-see posture. Due to our electoral system being based on the First Past The Post system, a minor swing in either direction can decide the fate of either the government or the opposition. Incumbency will not favour the MSM, but the opposition cannot bank on this single factor to reap a victory.

If the mainstream Opposition maintains its alliance, winning by default could be a possibility where people vote against the Government but not for the Opposition.

I do not think that electoral arithmetic can be relied upon to deliver victories or inflict defeats. There must be the proper chemistry between the electorate and the candidates. Electoral arithmetic will have to be combined with electoral alchemy—the right mix of candidates, policies, and ethics.

Voters’ silence should not be mistaken for voters’ indifference. Two mandates are long enough for voters to decide whether they are better off, whether promises have been kept, and whether the country is moving in the right direction.

* We often hear about people, disillusioned with the politics of the two contesting blocs, looking for a better option. That is also not in sight. Is it likely therefore that the people will by default vote for the Opposition alliance — and for its front bench?

40% undecided voters are a clear indication that the two main contesting blocs have, so far, not been able to make a breakthrough in this undecided electorate segment. A third credible option is also not in view. But there is still time for the situation to evolve.

MSM came to power by default, with only 37% of the electorate’s support. It is true that it has been in government and in power, but its legitimacy remains contested due to a lack of a popular mandate.

The prospect of a third consecutive mandate for the MSM, with all its consequences in terms of governance, is likely to provoke second thoughts among those whose stand has, so far, “Ni Pravind Ni Navin”. When the prospect of a third MSM mandate is evoked, with the MSM and its horde of “Chatwas” at the helm of government and a repeat of all the culture of “Chatwarism”, I can hear voices in favour of another political tagline: “Vaux Mieux Navin ki Pravind”.

A default vote in favour of the Opposition should not be discarded.

* It appears there is much truth in what is being said about the MSM’s attempts to rope Xavier Duval and his PMSD away from the Opposition alliance – at any cost, it would seem. It’s said that Duval would not be comfortable for different reasons in that alliance. Should he decide to go back to the MSM, would that signal the death knell of the Opposition alliance?

Part of the MSM game plan is to destabilise the Opposition and getting PMSD on board is the logical move in that direction.

Xavier left the government because of the sinister motives of the MSM to exercise control over the Office of the DPP and undermine its independence as guaranteed by the Constitution.

He has performed exceptionally well and has been very effective as the leader of the opposition. From the mismanagement of the economy, the denunciation of endless cases of scandals, corruption, nepotism, and favoritism, to the state capture of almost all our institutions, including the National Assembly, the drug scourge, and the brain drain — you name it — Xavier has been on all fronts.

I don’t see Xavier standing up for the Stag Party, the Angus Road scandal, or the murder of Kistnen in exchange for a few extra tickets and a better position in an MSM government. I don’t know if all PMSD will act in a suicidal manner and set the stage for a split within the PMSD.

Politics is indeed the art of the possible, but everything is also not possible in politics. We have to leave Xavier to his conscience.

Should MSM succeed in roping in the PMSD, it will not be game over for the opposition. They can always reshuffle their cards and win more favours among the undecided 40% of the electorate.

* At the end of the day, regime change will only happen if the people vote for change, but they have to be convinced that what is on offer is a credible and workable alternative. They’ll otherwise vote the incumbents back to power. It does not seem people havebeen given an answer to that question so far…

That is the crux of the matter. Winning back the trust of the electorate is the real issue. The leaders of the opposition are proposing a new deal based on “rupture”. Rupture should start at their level. They must identify the trust deficit, do some serious introspection and do everything possible to win back the confidence of the electorate. Mauritians are a great people with a generous heart. Zotte pas content dominere et dimoune faisere!

They expect a new political culture where there is no place for arrogance of power, cronyism, privileges at the expense of public interests; people want an end to their daily hassles with the bureaucracy in the provision of public services; they want employment opportunities for their children on an equitable basis; they want better health, better education, better leisure, better environment and better quality of life; they want an end to the drug scourge and the pauperisation of the middle income and the lower income groups. They want a New Social Contract.

There are so many areas where the Opposition can come up with proposals which will impact favourably on public opinion. The country is going through difficult times, but adversity can be transformed into opportunity.

On 2nd October, we celebrated the birth anniversary of the great Mahatma Gandhi. His inspirational saying “Be the change you want to see” should become the motto, the mantra of the Opposition leaders, in both their words and actions. Only then will people vote for a regime change. By design and not by default.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 6 October 2023

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