Our Democracy in Question

Mauritius can top all indices in Africa but does not match up to the highest standards of the best democracies of the world

The democratic process unfolding in Britain in the wake of the people’s vote in favour of Brexit has starkly exposed the many shortcomings and fault lines of our own democracy ensnared in endless and crippling politicking.

Immediately after taking cognizance of his defeat in the referendum polls, David Cameron who had led the campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union (EU) announced, in line with the best traditions of democracy in the world, that he was stepping down as Prime Minister. This triggered the elaborate process to choose a new leader enshrined in the Conservative Party rules.

This process is twofold. Nominations are sought from all those interested in becoming the Party leader. If there are more than two candidates, successive ballots are held among Conservative MPs. At each round, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated until the field is narrowed to two candidates. The leader is then chosen by a ballot conducted among the wider membership of the Party of some 150,000 party members. Akin to a primary in the United States, the final two candidates for the leadership of the Party have to campaign across the country to canvass support from the Party membership on the basis of their vision of the future and credentials to be elected to lead the Party.

In the post Brexit search for a new leader of the Tory Party, two rounds of voting by Conservative MPs were required until the choice was narrowed to Theresa May, the Home Secretary and Andrea Leadsom, who was a leading figure of the Brexit campaign. The process of electing a Tory leader was shortened by the decision of Andrea Leadsom earlier this week to pull out of the Tory leadership race in a bid to put the Party, the country and the economy above personal ambition and interests. An open contest for the leadership when Andrea Leadsom had only received some 25% of the Conservative MPs’ vote against Theresa May who had obtained about 60% of the votes would have been damaging and divisive for the party. It would have also prolonged the climate of profound uncertainty weighing on markets since the Brexit vote on 23 June 2016. Theresa May, was therefore crowned the leader of the Conservative Party.

In the wake of this earlier than expected dénouement, the British Prime Minister tendered his resignation to the Queen on Wednesday last. Theresa May was thus appointed Britain’s second female Prime Minister, after a gap of more than 25 years. She has already named the key Ministers of her Cabinet, David Davis who backed the Brexit campaign has been made Secretary of State for European Union Relations responsible for negotiating Britain’s exit terms with the EU. Boris Johnson, the leading Brexit figure is the new Foreign Secretary.

On assuming the leadership of the Conservative Party, Theresa May, who had campaigned for Britain to remain in the European Union (EU) reaffirmed that the Brexit vote means that Britain will leave the EU and ‘we will make a success of it’. Her to-do list priorities are to unite the country deeply divided as a result of the referendum and negotiate the very best possible deal for Britain, following the decision to leave the EU. She vowed to be a one-nation Prime Minister and to lead a government that works for all and not just for a privileged few. Her swift appointment as Prime Minister and reassuring remarks brought clarity in a situation undermined by prolonged uncertainty and helped quell the market. However, she also declared she would not trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty giving formal notice of Britain’s exit before the end of the year.

Country above all

Britain faces a particular post Brexit situation. Of the three leading figures of the Brexit campaign, Boris Johnson ruled himself out of the Tory leadership race whereas Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary was eliminated in the second round of the leadership vote and Andrea Leadsom pulled out at the final leg of the leadership contest. The British vote in favour of Brexit will now have to be translated into a viable and sustainable reality by a Prime Minister who backed the Remain campaign. This is another potent example of a vibrant democracy. The Prime Minister and the elected MPs unequivocally respect the paramount will of vox populi irrespective of their personal choices in the referendum.

It must be added that all the main protagonists of the leadership contest are all highly qualified, having not only attended the top universities in Britain but also having had a successful professional career before joining politics. David Cameron, Theresa May or Michael Gove went to Oxford whereas Andrea Leadsom went to Warwick. Both May and Leadsom had banking careers before joining politics. One of the essential elements of democracy is to have qualified, talented and able politicians with a proven professional track record to lead the country with competence, positive intent, humanity and authority.

Democracy also means adhering to some basic and simple ethical rules. These include having the elementary grace to step down as leader of the Party after a defeat at the polls and being disavowed by the people. It means putting the Party and the country’s interests above personal ambition and interests. It also means having a transparent, open and democratic process to choose the right leader to lead the party.

During the past months, gruelling primaries were held in the United States to choose the Democratic and Republican nominees for the US presidential elections scheduled for 8 November 2016. Prior to the last French Presidential elections, the Socialist party also organized a primary in 2011 to choose its candidate to contest the 2012 presidential elections. Emulating this democratic practice, the opposition party ‘Les Republicains’ is now also to organize its own primary in November 2016 to choose its presidential candidate for the 2017 French presidential elections.

In his last remarks, after his last Prime Minister’s question time on Wednesday this week before resigning as PM, David Cameron said that ‘the people and MPs must always put on test and challenge the leaders and that great things can be achieved for the country if one has public service and the public interest at heart’.

Fixing our democracy

The post Brexit democratic and transparent process to elect a new Tory party leader and Prime Minister yet again showcases the ideals, standards of political ethics and quality of the political system and political class of Britain’s parliamentary democracy. It also carries potent lessons to correct the many shortcomings of our own democracy. In contrast, the political class in Mauritius seems eons distanced from these basic ideals and benchmarks of political ethics and transparency of process vis-à-vis the people. The sum of abilities and proven talent of the political class and the general state of democracy and party democracy are also major let downs. Mauritius can top all indices in Africa but does not match up to the highest standards of the best democracies of the world. Political interference and the lack of strict adherence to the rule of meritocracy have also deeply undermined and weakened the strategic thinking, policy framing and managerial acumen of government Establishment.

After being ignominiously trounced and disavowed at the December 2014 polls, the party leaders of the ill-fated Labour-MMM (LM) alliance did not resign in deference to elementary political ethics. They still remain firmly rooted to their posts. They seem convinced that their leadership at the head of their respective parties, purged of dissenters or silenced rivals with the support of cohorts of sycophants and obsequious coteries is a credible and viable option for the future.

Old habits die hard. The leader of the opposition assiduously surrounded by his brigade of apparatchiks continues unabashedly with his weekly press conferences (diligently relayed by the partisan press), honed and perfected over decades of practice, with a vengeance. The high standards of political ethics and democracy prevailing in Britain and other vibrant democracies in the world should have inspired the political class to change tack. Frustratingly, instead of having a constructive and positive debate on all national issues driven by an altruistic sense of service to the nation and an unwavering intent to uphold public interest at all times, the national political debate remains mired in endless and tiresome politicking.

No party or leader in the democratic world afflicts the country and the people with weekly press conferences carrying their own political spin on issues, government decisions and developments in the country or on even the most insignificant of peccadilloes. Other political parties also blithely join in and lock horns in this pointless politicking. For donkey’s years week in week out this senseless rigmarole has become the bane of our society and our democracy.

Our democracy is therefore in question. Its many shortcomings in respect of political ethics, party democracy, competence, managerial ability, strategic thinking acumen and standards of good governance need to be urgently fixed. The present model and its political and economic actors are manifestly out of steam to break the cycle of stunted growth and get the country up and going again.

The dead wood must be cut if we are to achieve our most ambitious objectives as a nation. The prospect of the people having to make a choice between the very bad and the very worse is an untenable option for the future. A necessary and salubrious change of guards representative of the country’s real potential with a younger leadership with proven talent to lead the country into a more sustainable and prosperous growth path is a necessary and an absolute imperative.

* Published in print edition on 15 July 2016

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