Saving our Democracy from Duress

The PM’s post cannot be bartered. Nor is it is a family heirloom that can be bequeathed

It is the people and solely the people who can decide and choose at the polls who is worthy of their trust to become Prime Minister

Mrinal Roy

Recent events have once again exposed the profound and systemic shortcomings of our democracy. Any stress test would reveal its many fault lines. In all vibrant democracies, the post of Prime Minister has a unique status and role in the psyche of the people. The Prime Minister is above all the person whom the people decide to trust and choose to entrust the destiny of the country with. He is the State leader who is assigned through their vote at the polls the prime task of translating their most cherished aspirations and dreams into reality.

This trust is not given lightly. It is primarily based on the people’s assessment of whether the person aspiring to be Prime Minister is through his actions and track record, inherent abilities, qualities of leadership, commitment to a selfless sense of service to the nation and the ethos and ideals of the country’s fight for independence really worthy of trust for the supreme investiture.

In short, he must make the cut through merit and the legitimacy of humbly seeking and obtaining the people’s endorsement. As has been attempted in the past, the PM’s post can therefore certainly not be bartered. Nor is it is a family heirloom that can be bequeathed. It is the people and solely the people who can therefore decide and choose at the polls who is worthy of their trust to become Prime Minister.

The elected Prime Minister also carries and shapes through his stature and experience the standing of the country abroad and in diverse international fora. It must be said that the recent uncompromising speech of the Prime Minister delivered with great aplomb and unwavering resolve on the issue of our sovereignty over Chagos and Tromelin at the UN General Assembly was a proud moment for the nation.

Comparing like with like

There is in the current debate a glib and facile amalgam being made between the lofty democratic traditions of the Westminster parliamentary system of government and our own warped democracy. In so many respects, it is evident that we are simply not comparing like with like. Since 1968, there have been 9 different Prime Ministers in the United Kingdom ranging from Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron to Theresa May. This succession of new Prime Ministers has brought a constant rejuvenation of talent and provided at each change of government fresh impetus to the country and improved prospects for the future.

In contrast, we have had only three elected Prime Ministers during that period of 48 years since the independence of the country. Moreover, there is basically no democracy in the main political parties of the country. Political power within the main parties is firmly held by the omnipotent leader through a tightly controlled structure based on the unconditional allegiance of apparatchiks and coteries where dissent is frowned upon and summarily dealt with. Akin to the worst banana republics, the main parties also have an entrenched dynastic culture where the party is considered a tightly guarded family heirloom to be bequeathed to the next generation.

In the United Kingdom, party leaders across the political divide who are defeated at the polls promptly step down and resign. This starts a transparent and democratic process of their replacement by a new leader who is chosen by vote by the party members. For example in the Conservative Party, the resignation of David Cameron in the wake of the Brexit vote triggered an elaborate process to choose a new leader as per the Conservative Party rules.

Any party member who has a following among MPs can stand to become party leader. Successive ballots are held among Conservative MPs and candidates with the lowest vote tally are eliminated after each round until the field is narrowed to only two candidates. Unless one of the two candidates desists, the leader is then chosen by a ballot conducted among the wider membership of the Party of some 150,000 party members. As in any democratic election the two contenders have to campaign across the country to enlist the support of the party members on the basis of their respective vision of the future and credentials to be elected to lead the Party.

Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn who was elected leader of the UK Labour Party last year lost a no confidence vote in the wake of the Brexit vote among the Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) 172 to 40. His leadership at the head of the Labour Party was therefore challenged by Owen Smith. The leadership contest was arbitrated in accordance with the Labour Party rules by elections among the 500,000 party members. At last week’s polls, Jeremy Corbyn won with 61.8% of the party votes and called for party unity to carry the party objectives forward.

In Mauritius, despite being repeatedly defeated at the polls the leaders of the main political leaders never step down or resign to leave the place to a new, more capable and credible leadership to carry the party forward with a more imaginative and dynamic approach and vision. Despite decades in politics, the leader of the MMM has never been able to be elected Prime Minister on his own. Despite accumulating a series of some eight defeats at the polls he is with the pliant support of party members still leading the party and has announced that he will once again contest the next polls as the prime ministerial candidate of his party. Similarly, by remaining rooted to the leadership of the Labour Party, the leader of the Labour Party blocks any prospect of a Labour Party revival.

Crowds press ganged, enticed and transported to party conventions and meetings do not win elections.

What is even worse is that the unequivocal verdict of the people at the polls is hardly ever humbly accepted by the defeated parties. Instead of putting an end to the tiring and futile politicking which is the hallmark of our democracy, defeat in fact fuels it with a vengeance. Thus, opposition MPs continue to pander to the abject agendas of their defeated leaders instead of having as elected MPs public service and the public interest at heart and engaging the government post election on a constructive debate on the socio-economic advancement of the country.

The country thus remains continuously bogged down by never-ending politicking sustained by weekly press conferences dutifully attended by party MPs and members and diligently relayed by the partisan press. The upshot is that politics continues throughout the mandate to occupy centre stage instead of being sidelined, to the detriment of the more pressing and urgent socio-economic imperatives of the country.

Enemies at the door

The enemies of democracy are everywhere. They are in Gabon where last week the constitutional court validated President Ali Bongo’s re-election and the Bongo family’s near 50 year rule after declining the opposition’s petition for a recount despite a slim victory margin of less than 6,000, claims of alleged vote rigging and strong reservations voiced by the EU and international institutions that the vote count had not been transparent.

They are also in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, South Africa and in so many countries in the world. They are those who deny education to girls and women or impose a harsh, intolerant and autocratic rule in the name of political ideology or religion. They are those who driven by xenophobia want to shut the doors of the United States or Europe to helpless refugees fleeing their war torn countries. They are those who illegally build new settlements in occupied territories and deny the Palestinians a free and independent State.

They are those who use chemical weapons arms on their own people. They are those who appointed through political patronage to serve the country fill up their pockets at the expense of the public Exchequer. They are those who unabashedly cling to power despite being rejected by the people at a time when the democratic world has since long limited the terms of office of Prime Ministers and Presidents to a maximum of two and are implementing improved and transparent ways of choosing Prime Ministers or Presidents purely on merit instead of narrow socio-ethnic considerations.

In the United States the nominees of both the Democratic and Republican parties for the US presidential elections (scheduled for 8 November 2016) are chosen through gruelling primaries. Similarly, in France the Socialist party had in 2011 started to organize a primary to choose its candidate to contest the 2012 presidential elections. The opposition party ‘Les Republicains’ is now also following suit by scheduling its own primary in November 2016 to choose its presidential candidate for the 2017 French presidential elections.

The present political meddling and sabre rattling of the private sector re the necessity of urgently bringing stability is unbecoming. The unconditional protection and upholding of fundamental democratic principles and values has no price and is much richer than material profit.

Put simply, democratic practices prevailing in Mauritius are aeons distanced from those of the best democracies of the world such as the United Kingdom. The 70 MPs of the National Assembly are elected by the people to serve them strictly in accordance to the brief given to them. A handful of them even if they hold the majority cannot usurp the people’s paramount right and power to choose who they decide should head the government. This choice belongs solely and exclusively to the people.

Mrinal Roy

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