Let us get our priorities right

In the face of the daunting challenges affecting the real economy and the people of our country, it would be indecent to be distracted and drawn into an electoral reform which serves the interests of power and politicians rather than the nation

For some weeks now, there is a well orchestrated build up regarding the electoral reform and the necessity to seize the opportunity of forging a political agreement thereon, glibly qualified as ‘historic’. The weekly press conferences, newspaper editorials, media comments and expert views are all drumming up pressure to ensure delivery on the ‘promised’ White Paper on this issue as a step towards achieving this prized goal. Is this a priority for our nation?

The upshot of the reform formula being aggressively canvassed by this concerted lobbying would be to increase the number of Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) by a minimum of 12 Members (Proposed 82 less 70 presently). Is that the people’s wish or a contrived arrangement among a caucus of politicians to change the present rules and tip the scales to suit their unavowed agendas, at the expense of the public good and the Exchequer? The poor image of all the political class in the eyes of the public which has been further impaired by recent events which have sullied some and the sorry state of the National Assembly debates distanced from the real preoccupations of the population can hardly enthuse the public at the prospect of having even more politicians.

Are we not fed up with the endless politicking and tiresome political bickering in the country as political parties try to continuously upstage each other at a time when the country and the Government are faced with much more important challenges and the concerns of the people which have to be urgently addressed to promote the common good? Instead, we are afflicted by the unending weekly rounds of one-upmanship anchored on the parliamentary questions and replies rehashed in the ensuing press conferences and other media statements of each of the main political parties. Of late, Mauritius does appear like a country of quarrelsome old men in politics. The Parliamentary vacations are such a welcome respite!

Let us make it very clear to the present high priests of electoral reform that there is no public mandate to tinker with such an important and sensitive issue and that it is not quantity but quality of politicians which is required. If we compare ourselves with the major democracies in the world, we have a significantly higher ratio of politicians to our population than in those developed countries. In the United States there are 535 Congressmen comprising 435 House Representatives and 100 Senators for a population of some 316 million i.e. less than 2 Congressmen per million of population. In the UK, Parliament comprises 650 MPs for a population of some 63 million i.e. 10 MPs per million. In France, there are 577 Members of the National Assembly for a population of some 65 million i.e. about 9 Members per million.

Similarly in India the Lok Sabha (the People’s Assembly) has 552 Members (limited to this maximum figure by the Indian Constitution) for a population of about 1.3 billion i.e. less than one MLS per million. Compared to a more complex democracy like India having a population 1000 times that of Mauritius, we have 70 Members of the National Assembly for a population of about 1.3 million which gives a significantly higher representation of some 54 MNAs per million than in any of the above major and much older democracies of the world. In all these democracies First Past the Post (FPTP) is the paramount rule for election at the general elections. To put it simply, we already have more MNAs in Mauritius than we need.

Furthermore, we all know perfectly well that any new addition to the number of MNAs will be chosen on the basis of the same parochial considerations as presently. In the ensuing electoral battle to wrest power, voting will be even more sectarian than before. Far from achieving a fairer representation, it is going to irreversibly entrench the abhorrent communal dimension of Mauritian politics. Moreover, the changes being canvassed have a high risk of a hung National Assembly when we require at all times decisive policy making by a strong Government with a clear majority capable of carrying Mauritius to loftier levels of socio-economic development. In this context, the outcome of the Rodrigues regional elections post reform last year is a crying reality check.

Instead of more MNAs, it is time, after 45 years of Independence, that we demand a fundamental change of approach to attract and induct the most competent and able Mauritians to serve the country. This new breed of politicians should, akin to some of the altruistic stalwarts who fought for our Independence, be imbued with the highest code of ethics, lofty ideals, good governance and a selfless sense of public service and initiate innovative policies, cogent actions and appropriate reform of the economy to iron out blatant inequalities, to ensure an all inclusive and sustainable development of the economy to continuously raise the standard of living in the country and the general well being of the population.

Such an approach would better equip us to face the many challenges ahead. Except for those confined within their narrow domestic walls, mainstream Mauritius is since long welded into a nation and have repeatedly given proof of their wise judgement whilst exercising their right to vote, resulting in plaudits of ‘lepep admirab’. It is time for politicians to take their cue from them and have the political will to promote rather than only pay lip service to unity and nationhood through the choice of candidates for elections on proven merit rather than ethno-social politics.

One Elector One Vote

If we are to genuinely improve democracy in our country, there are much more important issues to be examined first such as the unfairly unequal weight of votes across the 21 constituencies of Mauritius. From an examination of the electors registered in the different constituencies at the 2010 general elections, we note that there is a yawning disparity in the number of electors among the constituencies. Thus, 4 constituencies had more than 50,000 electors, 10 constituencies had between 40,000-50,000 electors, 4 constituencies had between 30,000-40,000 electors and 3 had between 20, 000-30,000. Yet, all the 20 constituencies in Mauritius elect three MNAs. This skewed distribution resulted in, for example, candidates being elected with some 6200-8000 votes in the 2 smallest constituencies in Mauritius whereas candidates scoring between 14,300 and 21,600 votes were not elected in the four largest constituencies having more than 50,000 electors. How is this uneven distribution of electors in line with the democratic rule of one elector one vote? In the absence of a similar electoral mass of electors in all constituencies would it not be more equitable to adjust through public mandate the number of elected MNAs per constituency accordingly?

As in the case of other major democracies, other issues concern a clearer definition of our fundamental rights in the Constitution akin to the American Declaration of Independence, the number of terms of office of the Head of Government and Head of State, a need for more transparency in the manner political parties are organised, financed and candidates for elections are chosen, the need to induct proven talent as candidates instead of the present ethno-social criteria which determine the choice of candidates. There is also need to separate religion from politics and address the issue of floor crossing during a mandate. Whilst we all agree on gender equality and more women in politics, there is a need to first overhaul the present political system to render it attractive to the more talented Mauritians, who irrespective of gender, presently shy away from it.

The continuous blitzkrieg against Government using all sorts of sensational issues and the present hype on electoral reform distracts attention from the real priorities of the country and the concerns of the people which need to be urgently addressed. The priorities relate inter alia to growth of the economy against the background of a persistent international financial crisis affecting our main markets, the erosion of the purchasing power of the more vulnerable sections of the population and the access and bottlenecks to employment of a larger pool of better qualified and skilled Mauritians entering the job market.

They also include the systemic run down of moral values in society as attested by the increasingly sordid nature and variety of crimes including those against children, the elderly or kin in the country and the pervading lack of ethics and related corruption which seem to taint a broad range of dealings and is reflected in the cupidity underlying the Ponzi schemes and recent allegations regarding car imports. Other priorities concern the inability of the authorities to contain the increasing criminal fires afflicting farmers’ cane fields every month during the harvest season, causing loss of precious revenue and bring the culprits to justice as well as the inordinate delay in the delivery of the Planter’s de-rocking scheme financed by the EU against a background of dwindling net revenue and the spreading abandonment of cane cultivation.

More generally, there is an urgent need to ensure, through diligent monitoring, meaningful delivery on various laudable policy initiatives such as equal opportunities in public/private employment through a public and transparent mode of recruitment, the democratisation of the economy or the rule of fair competition or the Corporate Social Responsibility scheme and to take where necessary appropriate corrective measures to set things right. Urgent measures must also be adopted to ensure that the growing pool of well qualified young Mauritians are harnessed to help upgrade the strategic and innovative capability of both the public and private sectors to help generate growth and more wealth for the country. Similarly, it is important to ensure through appropriate supervision and surveys of public satisfaction that the services provided by the State such as free health, education and social security are of the highest standards and generate public goodwill.

In spite of significant achievements, our society is still beset with lots of inequalities which have to be set right by fundamental reforms to set up a level playing field in terms of access to factors of production and opportunities to start a business. For both the young legitimately aspiring for a home and for entrepreneurs wishing to seize the opportunities in the new pillars of the economy opened by the State, access to scarce land resources in appropriate localities is a major constraint and needs to be tackled through related land reform measures. More generally, we seem to live under a worrying legal system which allows arrests on allegations. It is imperative that the law be amended to establish the sacrosanct principle of ‘présomption d’innocence’ enshrined in the fundamental rights’ safeguard of innocent until proved guilty.

The Writing on the Wall

Mauritius is a small country. The management of its economic activities and the scale of export orders for its goods and services or tourist arrivals to assure the viability of these sectors are in absolute terms modest compared to say a medium sized firm in a BRICS or a developed country. Given the high quality of the products and services offered, we should be able to re-engineer our strategies and diversify our markets to adapt to the international economic crisis. Seeing the writing on the wall, there is ample evidence of say textile firms who have successfully diversified their exports to South Africa or to the USA under AGOA or to both countries to make good the flagging demand from traditional markets in Europe.

A similar approach is evident in the tourism sector by some who are diversifying their markets and adapting their product to suit the increasing number of tourists from China or India or Australia. Support from the State and shareholders will only be forthcoming to economic actors who make the right choices and strategic decisions to adapt to the crisis and more importantly remain competitive and viable in the context of a liberalized world trading environment. The small size of Mauritius also facilitates the administration of the State provided its services are manned by competent cadres and officers recruited on the basis of meritocracy. In the wake of the galling news that our casinos made substantial losses and recent events, it is consequently high time that our parastatal organisations and state owned companies stop being a dumping ground for political protégés or politicians disavowed at the polls.

In the face of such daunting challenges affecting the real economy and the people of our country, it would be indecent to be distracted and drawn into an electoral reform which serves the interests of power and politicians rather than the nation. It is obvious from the above non exhaustive list of urgent actions required in the country that we need to get our priorities right at a time of continuing international economic crisis. These issues together with a host of other burning issues must be tackled promptly if we want to heighten the tempo and thrust of our socio-economic development and continue to improve the quality of life of Mauritians.

* Published in print edition on 16 August  2013

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