Making The Right Choice

The coming general elections are the most important since the 1967 elections which led to the independence of Mauritius in 1968, 46 years ago

After presumably its longest recess since its inception, the National Assembly has, as expected, been dissolved before the end of the present mandate. History will retain that the activities of the National Assembly (NA) were, except for a handful of sessions, stalled and held hostage to the protracted and chequered negotiations for most of the parliamentary year to enable the ruling Labour Prime Minister and its constitutional opponent, the MMM Leader of the Opposition to horse trade a power sharing alliance.

It will also retain that this cavalier prorogation of the National Assembly would not have been possible without the complicit accord of the majority of the elected Members to the National Assembly from both the ruling Labour Party and those of the MMM, who will for the most part be seeking re-election at the forthcoming general elections.

The date for the announcement of the dissolution of the National Assembly had already been out of the bag since some time in spite of repeated assertions that it is the Prime Minister’s prerogative to do so. The battle lines are now drawn. All camps are rearing to canvass maximum support to win the forthcoming general elections. The Labour-MMM (LM) alliance taking their respective traditional voters, who have stood by them through thick and thin over decades (during which they were principally fiercely opposing each other), for granted are already blowing their own trumpet of a 60-0 win before the elections are even run. Campaign money which should have been bridled with more rigorous controls and rules of transparency will pour in to be splashed excessively in the mano-a-mano to wrest victory at the polls. The publicly financed MBC has adapted to the new power configuration as evidenced by the tenor of its broadcasts. Does the selective and partisan coverage of the press conferences of the main political protagonists of the forthcoming elections meet the test of objective scrutiny?

More fundamentally, it would be foolhardy to deny the fact that the power sharing alliance between the leaders of the ruling Labour Party and that of the MMM, its fierce opponent over decades, which usurps and barters the country’s Constitution has provoked a deep seated malaise in the country. People from all walks of life are profoundly troubled by this unprecedented power driven transgression of fundamental democratic principles and the overt hijacking of our democracy. A pervasive clamour among citizens, political analysts and basically mainstream Mauritians irrespective of political allegiances and repeated denials of the LM alliance, is mounting in the country. This is evidenced daily in discussions among people at the work place, on the streets, in exchanges on the social media networks or on media talk shows involving the public.

The pernicious threats to our democracy by those who profess to strengthen it seem to have jolted the nation to the unsavoury reality and extent of political expediency to obtain power. No democracy can survive if a vigilant nation does not jealously safeguard the people’s prerogatives as its ultimate custodian and protector and does not robustly defend the sovereign democratic rights of the people against any usurpation of these prerogatives. The recent massive mobilisation of the Scot electorate to assert through their decisive vote at their referendum on independence and the resulting emphatic victory that it is they who decide their future in line with their best collective interests is a potent case in point.

Safeguarding the legacy of hard fought battles

Mauritius is therefore at a crossroads. A focused strategy and a disciplined vote will determine the outcome of the elections. For the electorate who are the ultimate bulwark against totalitarian threats to our democracy and more importantly the guardian of its national ethos as well as the cardinal values, principles and objectives devolving from our independence, the stakes at the forthcoming elections are singularly high. Let it be clearly stated so that there is no ambiguity whatsoever in the minds of the voter: The coming general elections are the most important since the 1967 elections which led to the independence of Mauritius in 1968, 46 years ago. For the toiling and suffering multitude who dreamt of being freed of an iniquitous and discriminatory socio-economic and political order devoid of fair opportunities and fundamental rights for the downtrodden, the choice was clear cut and simple then. In spite of rabid scaremongering and oppression, all those who already felt the rallying togetherness and bonding spirit of a nascent Mauritian nationhood voted massively for independence.

In their emphatic winning vote for independence through the ballot box there was an unequivocal pledge from this multitude: Plus jamais ça! for themselves and future generations of Mauritians. We have been bequeathed this legacy with the collective mission to safeguard at all times our democracy and the fundamental rights wrested through hard struggle against any excesses of power driven agendas. All democracies remain strong only if the people, as in Scotland or in India at the general elections in May this year, are willing to fearlessly defend them through the judicious use of the power of their vote, the most lethal democratic weapon of all the fundamental rights won through the hard fought battles of our forebears.

One of the most important battles won during the constitutional debates at the London Conference leading to independence was the robust quashing of the proposal of proportional representation (PR) assiduously canvassed by the reactionary forces to bend the rules and thwart the people’s democratic will in a First Past The Post (FPTP) based general elections. The Labour Party through its President Guy Forget in an official letter to the British colonial authorities had firmly opposed PR on the grounds that it would inter alia prevent the normal development of a Mauritian identity, ‘aggravate and perpetuate divisions among Mauritians on racial and religious lines’ which the Labour Party considered its duty to prevent.

It must be also underlined that in spite of recurrent proposals post 2000 made in the wake of Commissions, select committee or reports to introduce a dose of PR in our electoral system, this has been systematically and resolutely nipped in the bud by the then ruling Prime Minister as from 2000. It is therefore disconcerting that the current Labour Party PM has endorsed a dose of PR in our electoral system earlier this year when previous PMs, his father Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the Labour Party and its electorate as well as Sir Anerood Jugnauth have been unerringly against.

It is equally dismaying that such substantive amendments to our Constitution as well as the equally radical changes to the present linear and PM based decisive power structure into a potentially unstable bicephalous one at the head of the State in the context of a 2nd Republic have not followed the due process of first obtaining the approval of the people through dedicated referendums, as was recently the case of democracies such as Scotland. The legality of such an arrangement to suit two persons and the cavalier approach to such fundamental changes to our Constitution exposes the contested process to litigation.

A litany of disputed reform proposals

In the context of the 2nd Republic, the LM Alliance has proposed a model of government based on a ‘balanced’ power sharing between a President and a Prime Minister, posts that the current leaders of the LM alliance will be the first to occupy. We have now been blithely advised that the proposed 2nd Republic which is essentially an untested hotchpotch of elements of various constitutions including those of Cape Verde, Malawi. Turkey, France, India is akin to the new 2014 Tunisian Constitution drafted by its Constituent Assembly. With more than 3,000 combatants engaged on the field, Tunisia was singled out in a recent BBC report as the source of the largest group of foreign nationals fighting with the Islamic State forces in Syria.

In contrast to the French Presidential mandate which has been reduced from 7 to 5 years after a referendum in 2000, the LM alliance proposes that the President will hold office for seven years (when terms of office and each mandate have always been limited to 5 years in the country) without first seeking the people’s formal consent. In addition, the President who will benefit from significantly enhanced powers is not subjected to the checks of any real accountability to the National Assembly or to the people. According to the scenarios envisaged in the power sharing plan, the PM once elected as President will cede the post of the PM to the Leader of the MMM whose bid for this post has been repeatedly thwarted at the polls by the electorate.

Furthermore the LM alliance proposes as electoral reform that after the First Past The Post election results are known, 20 Proportional Representative nominees are chosen by eligible Party leaders (obtaining at least 10% of votes) from a Party list to become as was the case during colonial times nominated Members of the National Assembly (NA), some of whom may not even have to face the electorate. This subjective, arbitrary and opaque system of nomination will open and pander to a Pandora’s Box of communal and caste lobbying to ensure listing and nomination to the NA. In addition, double candidacies will ensure that those disavowed by the electorate are assured entry into the NA through the back door.

Similarly, in the context of the 2nd Republic the proposed vetting by the President and the PM of the nominations of cadres chosen by an independent Public Service Commission to occupy non sensitive high posts in the civil service such as inter alia Permanent Secretaries, Deputy Permanent Secretaries or other high public sector top brass jobs not only feudalizes the civil service, dents its efficiency but also renders through political interference the system subjugated to all kinds of parochial lobbying. The same political vetting is to underpin the appointments of the Boards and CEO’s of parastatal institutions and State owned enterprises. We have also already seen knee jerk communally driven reactions from the leaders of the LM alliance aimed at pacifying purported campaigns claiming that this or that community is not represented on the front bench. Democracy is about individual and collective freedom within a lay society governed by common and fair rules and not about allowing governments to be held ransom by communal exactions.

In a context when the IMF has this week, for the third time this year, downgraded the world growth outlook for both 2014 and 2015 to 3.3% and 3.8% respectively and warned of weaker growth in core Euro zone countries, Japan and Brazil, shouldn’t the front bench and Ministers at the head of key ministries be strictly chosen from the best proven professional talent available instead of kowtowing to communal arbitrage and reflexes, the more so if the country is to come out of the trap of stunted growth rates and deliver on the promise of becoming a high income economy? It is equally dismaying and lèse-electorate that ministerial nominations are already being announced before the nominees have duly faced the music and been voted in by the electorate at the elections.

An ingrained culture of absolute control and overseeing contrary to elementary democratic principles is the hallmark and among the most fundamental failings of the constitutional reform proposals. At a time when electoral reform should have inter alia focused on limiting the terms of office of the President and the PM as well as Members of the National Assembly to create a culture of service rather than entrenched career politicians, on replacing a generation of ageing politicians by new blood imbued with professional expertise as well as legislating against pre-electoral alliances, we are doing the exact opposite and stunting our democracy.

How can an autocratic mode of governance and the above array of disputed constitutional reforms being proposed meet the avowed objectives of strengthening or consolidating democracy? How can the decades old political approach of scientifically balkanizing the people along communal and caste lines and in parallel continuously arbitrating among the fragmented components of the nation on everything ranging from job appointments, tickets during elections, Ministerial appointments and basically everything promote nation building, national unity or social integration? How does such a warped policy promote meritocracy, competence, innovativeness and harness the young to ply their expertise and patriotic enthusiasm to serve the nation to meet the daunting challenges ahead? How can such an overbearing mindset assure transparency and accountability?

This sorry picture shows how the heady pursuit of power by two leaders has blinded and distanced them and their parties which had benefited from the support of the people, from basic democratic principles and values.

No to tinkering with our Constitution

Thank goodness, the young and mainstream Mauritius does not see Mauritius from the fragmented and sectarian prism of politicians. At a time when Mauritian nationhood has conveniently become a glib political leitmotiv, it is equally relevant to underline that the unity of the nation and the kinship of nationhood are vibrant realities since donkey’s years. It is also evident that in spite of all the goodwill put in to rally all Mauritians in an all encompassing way, there are still some who choose to continue to nurture hangovers of the past or still continue to live segregated in their closed communities, or who thrive on engendered divisions.

In the light of the above, it is evident that our democracy and the rights and democratic space we, as a nascent nation, fought for and won at the time of independence is under serious threat by the constitutional reform proposals made by the Labour-MMM alliance. This is a momentous juncture in the history of our nation. Just as at the time of independence, the choice of the electorate at the forthcoming general elections is simple. Our democracy is menaced and in danger and the electorate needs to mobilise nationally to defend it robustly.

This is not the time for sympathy votes or abstention or to be hoodwinked by the call for a vote on the basis of allegiances to the LM alliance parties and their leaders who have reneged on and breached the contract of trust which anchored the support given to them over decades. By crossing the red line of usurping the electorate’s paramount right to vote and decide by referendum on any substantive changes to our Constitution, they have debarred themselves from our support.

To safeguard our democracy, the electorate and especially the young therefore need to mobilise massively and use the power of their vote in a disciplined and judicious manner to thwart the plans of imposing, should a three-quarters majority in the National Assembly be obtained, the host of contested constitutional changes on our democracy. The battle will be grim. The young and the future generations will never forgive us if we do not take the lead to robustly take a stand, especially as there is real risk that once amended, it will be quasi impossible to muster the required majority in an enlarged National Assembly to undo the constitutional changes.

A united national stand should also act as a warning to all and give a resounding lesson to the political class so that no party or alliance ever arrogates the licence of tinkering with our Constitution. In parallel, it will also sanction all those elected Members who did not honour their brief as representatives of the people during the last mandate and passively colluded in bringing the present setback to our democracy. In Ukraine, MPs accused of impropriety are presently unceremoniously dumped by the public in municipal dustbins and kept there for at least 20-30 minutes!

In the past the electorate in their collective wisdom have foiled various insidious ploys to set the clock of history back. However tough is the challenge, the present battle of safeguarding our democracy can be won if the electorate mobilises to ensure a high turnout with the least abstention and makes the right choice in a disciplined and targeted manner to ensure that every vote counts. The growing buzz is that there are already potent signs of such a momentum building.

Plus jamais ça!

* Published in print edition on 10 October 2014

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