Were the general elections truly free and fair?

By Mrinal Roy

What if the Supreme Court verdict puts in question the conduct and results of the general elections? Will it mean new general elections?

The tenor of the case presented by Roshi Bhadain, the leader of the Reform Party to the Supreme Court for leave to apply for a Judicial Review of the conduct and results of the general elections held on 7 November 2019 raises many fundamental and incisive questions. The thrust of its argumentation above all showcases the thoroughness of research and analytical work undertaken to arrive at the rationale which underpins the case submitted to the guidance of the Supreme Court.

It also outsmarts the main opposition parties. Its contents are thus in sharp contrast with the lack of depth and research of the petitions made by the main opposition parties of the country to contest the outcome of the elections in 10 constituencies of the country. This is yet another glaring example that despite the rhetoric and innuendos regarding the outcome of the general elections, the current leadership of the main opposition parties have been incapable of carrying out a pointed and thorough analysis of the election results to ferret out any inconsistencies and anomalies to enable them to couch a robust challenge of the election process and its outcome.

To make matters worse, there seems to be a complicit entente between the ageing and repeatedly defeated leaders of the Labour Party and the MMM to prop each other forward instead of stepping down, in order to continue clopin-clopant to lead their parties to the detriment of these parties, despite being repeatedly disavowed by the people at the polls.

Terrible let down

We have had 11 general elections and a host of by-elections in the country since independence. Yet, it is quite flabbergasting and a terrible let down that the political class and the political leaders who have monopolized the local political scene since independence or for decades as well as those who have made politics become their profession have been unable to codify in consultation with the Electoral Commission a transparent, accountable and credible electoral process which adheres to the highest benchmarks democratic elections are conducted in the world.

This means a democratic electoral process encompassing the registration of electors, the rules governing the electoral campaign, the protocol relating to the supervision of voting and the audit and validation of the votes counting process by all parties before the results are announced to assure that all elections are carried out in a truly free and fair manner to the satisfaction of electors, the candidates and the people at large.

It is therefore not surprising that the judicial review plea submitted to the Supreme Court also exposes the many failings of our democracy. It is a confirmed fact during the voting process that some 6,813 electors were not included in the register of voters and were therefore denied their sacrosanct right to vote at the 2019 general elections. These votes could have been determinant as the elections results showed that the vote difference between the 3rd elected and 4th defeated candidate varied between 25 and 292 in eight constituencies which in essence means that the difference is only half this number of votes.

Blind to tell-tale evidence

The signs that something was untoward with the registration of voters were however glaringly evident from the official statistics published before the elections. These statistics revealed that whilst the number of electors increased by more than 60,000 electors from 2005 to 2010 and by more than 55,000 electors from 2010 to 2014, it increased by only 4,744 electors from 2014 to 2019. Similarly, the number of voters registered in 2018 was 923,316 i.e. 13,659 voters less than the 936,975 electors registered for the 2014 general elections.

Why did these tell-tale statistics not act as an eye opener to the authorities and all those concerned that there was something flawed in the registration of electors? Why were the supervisory authorities and everyone including the political class blind to this glaring anomaly? Why were corrective steps not urgently taken at the time to remedy a flagrant inconsistency detrimental to the voting rights of thousands of electors?

To crown it all, while the number of voters increased by 18,491 voters from 2005 to 2010 and by 9,591 voters from 2010 to 2014, it registered a quantum increase of 30,876 voters from 2014 to 2019. Against such a backdrop, the submission made to the Supreme Court therefore avers that ‘it is difficult to comprehend how an increase of 4,744 newly registered electors has incredibly generated an increase of 30,876 voters for the 2019 general elections.’ Such a disconcerting situation ‘had a direct impact on the votes cast at the last general elections.’

Test of fairness

The submission also raises the issue of alleged electoral bribery as a substantial 44% increase in state pensions payable as from December 2019 with one month bonus costing billions of Rupees to the Public Exchequer were promised to some 220,000 senior citizens of the country after the dissolution of the National Assembly in breach of Section 64 of the Representation of the People Act. Similarly, the reimbursement of unpaid balances amounting to more than Rs 2 billion were proposed to the victims of the BAI collapse.

The submission also avers that a computer room managed by State Informatics Ltd was set up in each counting centre outside the oversight of candidates and election agents in breach of principles of transparency and accountability of the electoral process. Such a situation has shrouded the transmission of voting data verified and validated in the counting room to the computer room in opacity, the more so as the voting figures were computed in the computer room in the absence of the voting and counting agents of the candidates.

The intrusion of third parties having no locus standi agreed by all parties concerned in the secured voting and counting precincts violates its integrity and taints the electoral process. According to the submission it also ‘casts serious doubts as to the manner the election results were computed in the computer rooms and the veracity and accuracy of the results announced.’

What if?

The request for a judicial review of the conduct and results of the 2019 general elections is an unprecedented development in the political history of the country. The tenor of the case presented to the scrutiny and guidance of the Supreme Court has exposed various failings of our electoral process. It is also an indictment of the political class and the state of our democracy. The country has never faced a situation where the results of the general elections are being questioned. Mauritius is groping in unchartered territory.

Were the 2019 general elections truly free and fair in the light of the argumentation and evidence submitted to the Supreme Court and the governing laws of the country? This key question must be thrashed out with a sense of urgency and answered at the earliest. The country cannot afford to be dogged by uncertainty on such a crucial matter, the more so as any protracted legal battle will keep the country in limbo.

The implications of the case submitted to the judgement and guidance of the Supreme Court are far-reaching for the country. It also raises a host of serious questions.

If the Court finds no merit in the case submitted, everything continues in its normal humdrum mode. However, what if the verdict puts in question the conduct and results of the general elections? Will all the decisions taken by the new government including nominations, appointments and electoral promises, etc., be questioned and considered null and void?

Will it mean new general elections under beefed up conditions of transparency, accountability and security? Who will take these decisions on behalf of the people and the country for the common good? We need to fathom the scale of the domino effect of such a development on the country and its governance. It would be mayhem.

Imperative to act now

Such a scenario should be a jolting wake-up call for all of us. Have we brought it on ourselves as a nation by allowing governance at all levels to get so abjectly out of hand?

A true democracy also means that elections cannot be object of shenanigans of every kind to obtain an unfair advantage or to influence the results of elections. Beyond the merits and outcome of the case, isn’t it not high time as a nation that we urgently review the whole electoral process from the registration of electors to the announcement of election results to ensure that it is transparent, accountable and credible, rallies the support of all parties concerned and assures truly free and fair elections in the country?

In the light of the failings brought to light, it is equally important to revisit the structure, composition and powers of the Electoral Commission to render it verily independent and a trusted architect of truly free and fair elections in the country for the larger benefit of electors, candidates, the people and democracy in the country. We must above all ensure through these urgent and comprehensive reforms that the integrity and outcome of general elections are never questioned again in the country. Before matters get worse, we need to act now.

* Published in print edition on 24 January 2020

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