Does Fixing the Election Date Matter?

Whether we have elections this year or not, the election date is less important than the state of preparedness to wage the electoral battle

By Sada Reddi

At the present time, both the government and opposition parties seem to be giving increasing attention to the forthcoming general elections, speculating about the date it may be held. The Prime Minister has even dismissed the rumours about early elections. On the other hand, the electorate would have preferred to have a fixed date for elections rather than leave it as the prerogative of the Prime Minister, whoever is in office, to decide.

Election dates fixed by legislation would be fairer to all parties. It does not give the incumbent parties any perceived advantage and, most of all, it saves the country precious time and does not keep the electorate on its toes with permanent electioneering. It is argued by many that abuse can be made of the election date-fixing prerogative to give incumbent parties a tactical advantage for the prior announcement of certain measures, mostly populist, which makes it difficult for opposition parties to counter appropriately. In many countries it has been shown that that such a tactical advantage has enabled incumbent parties to get re-elected to power.

However, there is a flaw in this argument when applied to democratic states. If one accepts that this were true in a democratic polity, it would suggest there would never be a change in government and the incumbent parties would always remain in power. In the case of Mauritius, there is some doubt about whether the prerogative of fixing elections has enabled parties to remain in power though this perception is very strong among politicians and the electorate. In fact, in the past several incumbent parties/alliances had been booted out despite the tactical advantage drawn from the election date-fixing prerogative.

In1966 Gaetan Duval, the then leader of the PMSD, grudgingly agreed to the Stonehouse modification of the Banwellreport on the promise that elections would be held in November or December 1966. Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam resisted the pressure to call for elections; however following further pressure from Colonial Office mandarins he fixed the elections for August 1967. The date chosen fell within the crop season when there would be an increase in employment and sugar revenue would trickle down creating the feel-good factor among pockets of the working classes – dockers, sugar industry workers, small planters, in fact the whole population. Yet the Independence Party almost lost the 1967 elections and was saved by the three urban constituencies which were initially expected to vote for the PMSD.

Similarly, the Prime Minister’s prerogative to set the date of the elections does not seem to have given a significant advantage to incumbent parties, which lost the 1976, 1995, 2001, 2005, 2014 to opposition parties. In 1983, 1987, 1991, 2010, 2019 incumbent parties were returned to power. One major factor which in the past brought parties to power was the type of alliances they crafted, and the same explanation is applicable to opposition parties that won the elections. One could therefore conclude that the type of alliances crafted is more important than other considerations to secure electoral victory, except for the 2014 elections that were an aberration in the history of elections held in Mauritius.

Elections are fixed when certain objective conditions exist, and these are known to all parties. Parties will continuously monitor the situation so that elections, when they come, will never be a surprise. Whether elections are fixed this year or later, it is the nature of the alliance concocted by political leaders which may significantly decide the elections results. Not even economic and social conditions have such a decisive impact, though they remain important considerations.

Admittedly, there are also other crucial factors which come into play among all segments of the electorate such as ethnicity, the profile of the prime ministerial and other candidates. In addition, election campaigns and, to some extent, an electoral programme may become more important than in the past given that the aspirations of the present generation in the 21st century may be different from the earlier ones.

Broadly speaking, the electorate would vote depending on their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs. There will be plus and minus points on both sides of the divide and every section of the electorate will decide what it views as its major concerns and priorities and its expectations from political parties in terms of credible solutions to those concerns.

For example, some people will find that the metro has helped to ease travelling; others may think that it has insteadcompounded traffic congestion problems while many will not even consider it as an electoral issue. Young electors have different priorities from senior citizens that constitute 23% of the electorate. It is quite possible the older generation may not have been the deciding factor in the victory of the MSM-led at the last elections though their votes were far from being negligible.

Political parties know what are the critical factors which require attention during electoral campaigns, but they are rarely able to implement the appropriate strategies because of factors ranging from wrong choice of party personnel, poor organisation and ignorance of constituency realities. Yet they have ample time to prepare and refine their electoral strategies for the forthcoming general elections, whether in terms of alliances, candidates’ profiles, field work and intelligent use of the traditional media and social media. 

One can expect a fierce campaign based on laundered and unlaundered truths in the forthcoming elections. Abuse of the state apparatus may be effective or it can backfire. Opposition parties may win a psychological victory if municipal elections are postponed or held; they may even be fixed but not held — all this will be an indication of whether the country will go to the polls in 2023 or at a later stage.

If elections are postponed, that will be perceived as a strategy by the incumbent parties to pre-empt defeat in urban areas that constitute about 10 constituencies, and this would have its ripple effects over the other half of Mauritius. If it is not postponed, the results would show where the wind is blowing, and parties will be able to trim their sails accordingly.

Finally, whether we have elections this year or not, the election date is less important than the state of preparedness to wage the electoral battle. Nevertheless, a fixed date for general elections is more democratic, transparent, and one hopes such a proposal will appear in a democratic electoral programme for the general elections. That will send an important message that the country is at last inching towards a more democratic order.

In the past, few governments have completed their full mandate. Others have stayed on till the very last moment to go to the polls. To do so exposes the incumbent parties to a number of risks as unnecessary delays may provoke and exacerbate the impatience of the electorate which then votes for change.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 20 January 2023

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