Growing Discontent with Politicians and the Political System

The people do not want to compose with the same leaders they have repeatedly rejected in the past. The time is ripe for new parties which rally the multitude, new able leadership, and a new innovative vision

By Mrinal Roy

There is a growing disconnect between the people and politicians across the world. People are more and more loudly voicing their dissatisfaction and ire at the political system and politicians they sometimes voted to power only recently. The core problem is that too often once elected, governments omnipotently arrogate themselves the licence to do whatever they want, very often in the teeth of public interest and what people really want. They fail to understand that, in a democracy, it is the people who remain at all times the final arbiter of their decisions and everything that concerns the country, its core values, its Constitution, the standards of good governance and every important matter which would impact on the well-being of people and the future socio-economic prospects of their country. Any breach of the contract of trust between voter and the elected is bound to cause outrage among the people. The growing discontent of people with the political system and politicians is evidenced by the patent political backlash in the US and the countries of Europe against those in power and some of their decried policies.

This angry mood is best epitomized by the widespread demonstrations since 17 November affecting France when some 290,000 Frenchmen known as the ‘yellow vests’ (Gilets Jaunes) protested against the proposed rise in fuel prices in January hiked as a result of the government’s new carbon tax. Roadblocks set up at more than 2000 locations across France including highways and the Champs-Élysées in Paris and convoys of slow moving trucks snarled up traffic across France. The yellow vests have now called for a third week end of protests.

The demonstrators accuse President Macron who was elected through a landslide vote only some 18 months ago, to be out of touch with the people and the harsh reality of hardships endured by them owing to their eroding purchasing power, despite his promises of an economic upsurge and a better quality of life. The protestors call for his resignation. The anger of the people goes well beyond the issue of higher fuel prices which has served as a detonator to vent out their general discontent stemming from a host of grievances. In essence, a national protest rally of everyday working people with no organized leadership has transformed into a potent movement of outrage against the political establishment. The popularity of President Macron whose presidency has been plagued by a series of protests by workers, students and pensioners, has as a result, plummeted in the polls.

Red line

The loud and clear message is that governments cannot govern without taking on board the cogent views and valid protests of the people against proposals and decisions which are robustly contested by them. The present political system whereby governments once elected to power use their majority to take decisions decried by the people who elected them is untenable. This is a red line which cannot be crossed with impunity.

It leads, as in France or in the US against for example President Trump’s policy of separating immigrant families, to protests marches and street demonstrations by the people to seek redress. The people can no longer wait for the next elections to air their grievances and rock the boat. The inability of governments across the world to manage, once elected, the affairs of the country with probity and according to the highest code of ethics and norms of good governance for the benefit of all adds to the root causes of the growing disenchantment of the people with the political system and politicians.

These messages and warnings also apply to Mauritius where the situation is no better. Put simply, the people are fed up with the prevailing political system and the current crop of politicians and their appalling standard of governance. The people no longer want to vote for the same political parties led by the same omnipotent leaders which have failed the country for so long.

They instead want a new breed of talented politicians with a track record of achievements in their field of expertise and driven by the lofty ideals, altruism, ethos, selfless sense of service to the people and high standards of political ethics which have inspired the actions of the founding fathers of the main democracies of the world.

In simple terms this means that the level of ethics and probity expected of the political class is such that no politician, MP or minister should, for example, in any way benefit, as has been the case in so many instances, from any financial gains from State funds in the form of damages payouts and other questionable payments.

Sound principles and DNA

Every reform must be grounded on sound democratic principles rather than pander to narrow vested political agendas. The present wide and unfair disparity of voters across the 21 constituencies of Mauritius evidenced by a ratio of about 1:3 between the electors in smallest constituencies (nos 2 and 3) to the largest constituencies (nos 5 and 14) is contrary to elementary principles of democracy. The solutions to fix this iniquitous situation, which should have been a national priority, have not come from the main political parties seemingly content with the unfair status quo but from right thinking Mauritians.

Proposals have been made to have single member constituencies, each having an equal number of electors. Single member constituencies have the added advantage of thwarting cross party communal voting as evidenced in several constituencies during the 2014 general elections. Voters would have to make a choice based on party allegiance or merit.

In contrast to the main political parties who have proposed an increase in the number of MPs, proposals have also been made by independent and responsible Mauritians to reduce the number of constituencies to a maximum of 50 single member constituencies as the country obviously has too many costly and inept MPs. The way forward should be towards high quality MPs rather than their quantity. Each constituency will have some 18,500 electors who will more aptly ensure that their MP is directly answerable to them instead of being blindly subservient to party diktats.

In contrast, trapped in their narrow political agendas, the sole obsession of the MMM and some political leaders over the past decades has been to set the clock back through the introduction of proportional representation (PR) in our electoral system despite PR having been firmly opposed and rejected during the constitutional debates at the London Conference which cast the seminal principles and anchors underpinning the birth and DNA of independent Mauritius.

In essence, PR enables candidates defeated at the polls to get in the National Assembly, as in colonial times, through the back door, narrows down the majority obtained by the victorious party/alliance through the FPTP system at general elections and breeds instability. Against such a backdrop, how can the government table its decried electoral reform proposals?

None of the largest democracies of the world such as the UK, the US and India are using a hybrid system combining the time tested and simple to understand First Past The Post electoral system with PR. Why should we do so, the more so as this is anathema to the multitude? Apart from bamboozling the electorate in Rodrigues, such a hybrid electoral system has spawned an enduring mess in the wake of the Regional Assembly elections.

For too long the main political parties have despite their rhetoric nurtured communalism and casteism through the carefully tuned matrix of candidates fielded in the various constituencies of Mauritius and their questionable hobnobbing with socio-cultural organizations of every hue and colour. Single member constituencies would hopefully also scuttle every toxic instrument of division. We cannot champion nationhood while in the same breath thrive on division. Such mindsets have stoked old hangovers and derailed the debate on ethnic census carried across the world not for narrow political motives but to help frame more cogent socio-economic and health policies.

The unity of a nation cannot be tenuously based on a perpetual collage of communal or caste arbitrage. It is cemented on the solid foundations of shared values such as equality, solidarity, equal opportunities, meritocracy, inclusiveness and a common national purpose which benefits all.

African example

In a context when the majority of African countries have put a cap of a maximum of two terms of office on their Heads of State or Government, the priority in Mauritius should have been to limit the terms of office of Prime Ministers (PM) to a maximum of two. This would have also helped trigger, as is the case in the best democracies, a constant change of guards at the head of parties and a beneficial democratization of political parties which have been held hostage for decades by omnipotent leaders rooted to their posts despite being repeatedly disavowed by the people at the polls and by dynastic politics.

Instead, the government seems bent on exercising an overbearing control over everything. It is for example disconcerting to note the recent frantic efforts by government to defend its growth rate predictions in November through a national TV blitzkrieg with the support of institutions which rashly stake their credibility when the growth trend is known and the actual official growth figures for the year will be known shortly. Why should government also thwart the process of rural democracy and postpone Village Council elections scheduled this year to 2020 at a time when Rodrigues is autonomously administered with the support of a handsome budget since 2002?

Shouldn’t the government promote rather than hobble rural democracy or is the government scared of a political backlash?

New dawn

Such actions and proposals made by a nominated Prime Minister who does not have the legitimacy and mandate conferred solely by a formal plebiscite and vote by the people at the polls are contrary to what the people want. Poor governance, nepotism at the expense of the public Exchequer, fat cat jobs for the coterie, growing inequality and deteriorating economic fundamentals add to the discontent of the people. The current situation cannot go on.

People already know which parties and leaders they are not going to vote for at the next general elections. The people also do not want, as in the past, to compose with the same leaders they have repeatedly rejected in the past. The time is ripe for new parties which rally the multitude, new able leadership, and a new innovative vision for a more prosperous and inclusive society which puts the continued well-being of the people at the centre of its policies and actions. Will the growing discontent of the people trigger such a salubrious and game changing big bang to pave the way for a new dawn for the country?

* Published in print edition on 30 November 2018

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