Dire Forebodings on the political horizon

The main concern – l’enjeu principal — in the forthcoming general elections is nothing other than what has been referred to by politicians as the “Second Republic”. This is a euphemism for a proposed major structural change in our electoral system, leave aside the question of a bicephal power-sharing between a plenipotentiary president and a prime minister acting as chief executive in the House.

The intent is to make the Westminster system take the exit door.

Accordingly, the Constitution will be amended if its proposers – MMM and Labour in alliance – win in the elections. The First-Past-the-Post system (FPTP), together with the Best Loser System (BLS), has served us exceedingly well by bringing the majority view of electors to bear in electoral outcomes since independence. It has not jeopardized political stability despite some footloose members changing sides in mid-course according to their perceived advantages. It has also not affected the taking of effective governance measures for the good of the country.

Advocates of the “Second Republic” now want to import into this system a strong dose of Proportional Representation (PR), adding almost one third as many members to the House. That will involve allocating additional seats (beyond what is gained under the FPTP) in proportion to votes polled by each party (with a minimum eligibility threshold of 10% of national votes), with the obvious consequence that the electoral outcome would no longer be the same as what would have obtained under the pure FPTP system. In this sense, the forthcoming elections carry a sense of a ‘referendum’, as it were, on whether voters opt for PR or not in our electoral system. It is interesting that other issues are being brought to the fore, not this critical concern about the devastating consequences of the proposed PR.

Introduction of the PR in our system has the potential to overturn FPTP/BLS electoral outcomes. In the elections of 1976, the MMM going alone for the polls secured an average 40% of the votes cast with the PMSD catching 15% of them; by 1982, the MMM increased its take, with the help of the PSM, a breakaway group from Labour, winning 65% of the votes as discontent with Labour was fanned up by the MMM’s huge propaganda machine; despite splitting up in 1983, the party won an average 46% of total votes cast; in 1987, when it went alone to the polls again, it obtained 48% of votes cast; going alone in 2010, it secured an average 44% of total votes.

These figures show that the party has on its own strength – and without a PR system in place – come consistently close to gaining the adherence of nearly half the voters, with ups and downs, no doubt, but edging up closer to this level each time the outgoing government has aggravated the mood of its traditional voters. All the MMM, going it alone, would need under a PR system is to massage initially 5% more of the votes in its favour for the scales to tip over in its favour. Then, the road would have been cleared for it to consolidate further its control of the House. By this time, the serenity with which the country has been governed so far will have been lost for good.

It is not difficult to contemplate therefore a situation in which a party like thePMSD having secured sufficient numbers thanks to PR, can take over the majority in the House without the need for support from any other party. It could at most need the help of a couple only of elected members shifting their allegiance over to it at first to secure a comfortable majority in the House. This last factor is always possible given that not all our MPs are exempt from the power-seeking appetite which can easily shift allegiances to where the gain factor is. When the end-in-view is close by, a party can always make a forcing to put behind for ever the vicissitudes a FPTP system entails, amending the Constitution at will to perpetuate itself in power.

It is the reason why advocates of the FPTP system have resisted with full force any attempt to dilute, with the PR, the strength of the FPTP system which has served us so well over the past four and a half decades. Several generations of political leaders who have understood what is really at stake have fiercely combatted the idea of introducing any PR system in our elections. That has been the case since the Constitutional Conference of 1965 at Lancaster House. They refused it because they clearly saw it as the recipe par excellence to tear apart the fabric of our society, encouraging an all-out bid “coûte-que-coûte” by a political party to pitch a coalition of minorities against the majority until the final goal is reached. Our country did not deserve this fate then and it does not deserve it today. Politicians who realized what was at stake have always known it that when people feel that a single party is going to win at the elections, there takes place a shift of allegiances. For example, once the proposed PR-based electoral system is firmly in place, voters on one side of the political divide may feel that the other party (not traditionally theirs) is going to win. In such a case, they will abandon all their natural moorings, hoping to be picked up by the rising tide on the other side. This is a sorely mistaken expectation by such voters. When reality plays out actually, it will be too late to have regrets.

It is the reason why this idea of introducing a PR in our system has been shelved away since at least 1965. It is neither a necessity nor an urgency. But there are those who have secretly nursed the idea of bringing it back, given the opportunity.

It would have been noted with what force and vehemence some have just introduced a red herring in the political conversation – notably against the proposal that old age pension should be increased to Rs 5,000. Distractions of the sort keep the focus away from something like the PR which is of much greater significance. The concerned opinion-makers kept quiet when certain local private firms raised selected people automatically to executive levels with escalating salaries and perks for the higher cadres, despite the ongoing global downturn, but pressing down salaries of ordinary workers all the same. For them, any increase in this part of the corporate bill amounts to “inefficiency”. Unsurprisingly, they remained completely silent on the PR issue (perhaps they see it as the last straw for the drowning man to catch).

What may appear a convenient arrangement today has the potential to disrupt totally the governance structure of the country. The PR is the potential disruptive factor to our commendable democratic track record so far. Various seriously conflicted parties, being part of the Labour-MMM establishment advocating the PR, have been writing up the proposed PR system for several months, if not longer, and no one has had anything to say about their conflicting roles as party and judge in the matter. Things may take this very direction if no effort is made to check unnecessary digressions on the political framework taking the upper hand. There are dire forebodings on the political horizon and those who have crossed the Rubicon may not be aware of the real danger.


* Published in print edition on 24 Ocotober 2014

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