Will electoral reform boost the economy, create jobs, reduce public debt…

By TP Saran

The answer does not have to be guessed: it a plain NO!

Then why is it being given so much of importance at a time when the whole of government and government’s energies should be focused on the forthcoming budget, which the Ministry of Finance has already announced will be stringent? No new posts will be entertained, and there will be severe restrictions even on additional posts. As efficiency gains also have a limit, effectively civil servants are being asked to squeeze water from rocks…

Since it will not serve the country or its people in any useful manner, then what is the motivation for pushing this agenda of electoral reform? The truth is clear to everybody: it is that the two ageing leaders, of the Government and the Opposition respectively, want to so arrange that they remain at the helm of power for as long as possible. One wants to be President with enhanced powers, the other is aiming at being Prime Minister. What the former is failing to appreciate is that, should the latter have a majority in the House — a very likely scenario – then he will be in a very uncertain and potentially unstable cohabitation with a rival. Never mind what that means for the President personally; the more important issue is that this conflictual state is likely to cause major problems in the running of the country’s institutions.

Youth unemployment is frighteningly high, nearly 1 in 4 youth under 25 years being unemployed. Public debt is nearly Rs 200 billion, of which about Rs 40 billion are from foreign sources. The country’s annual budget is about Rs 50 billion. So who’s going to pay for the Rs 200 billion? The unemployed youth? As it is, the price of land and housing is beyond their reach, if on top of that they and the coming generation have to shoulder additional debts, how are they going to survive at all, not to speak of making a decent living? Have these two leaders given any thought to this?

Most ridiculous of all, again given the high youth unemployment levels and the economic crisis and call for restrictions and restraint on the part of the government, is the idea mooted to increase the number of members of the National Assembly to 88 or even 90. How much will the additional 20 or more members cost when their salary, their perks, the high cylinder duty-free cars they will purchase, their pension, etc., are added up? Someone has estimated that they will represent an additional expenditure of about Rs100 million per year at current rates. This means that instead of decreasing the public debt will increase. Add to that the fact that the welfare state model which we have in place, especially as regards universal pension, is known to be increasingly unsustainable around the world, one is really at a loss to understand why these two leaders want to expand the size of the House.

* * *

Eric Guimbeau is right

According to a report in Week-End of last Sunday, the leader of the Mouvement Mauricien Social Democrate Mr Eric Guimbeau has pointed out that whereas India has one elected representative for 2.2 million people, the figure for Mauritius is one elected member for 18500 people. There is therefore ample representation of Mauritians in the National Assembly, and the much cited model of Singapore too can be given as an example: for a population of 5 million they have only 16 ministers, compared to our 25! So Mr Guimbeau is absolutely right when he states that it is not by adding 20 more members in the NA that we are going to solve the crisis that faces the country. Further, what is lacking is competence, and not the number of elected members and their cronies.

Moreover, he is for a second chamber or senate, an idea which has been flagged a few times in this paper before. Even at the level of the Labour Party this was considered at some point, but where LP could have brought this transformational change in our political landscape, it chose to remain on the beaten path. And now it is on the way to compromise for an arrangement that is already stinking of doubtful motives. It could still steal the wind in the sail of the Opposition, instead of kowtowing to a flip-flopping adversary.

None of our political leaders match up to a Nelson Mandela, or even a Masire of Botswana, who both had the grace and the wisdom to step down and let their moral stature do the rest for their countries and, in the case of Mandela, for the world. Far from us to expect such magnanimity in the local context: we will settle for mere dignity and some informed realism.

After all, such an important matter as regards not only power but how it is going to be exerted for the distribution and control of resources in the country is not something that concerns only the political heads. Much deeper reflection is required through a wide consultative process across society as a whole, with inputs from experts in Constitutional issues. None of our political leaders have the monopoly of experience, nor of wisdom – which is perhaps asking for too much, and which is why we must tread very cautiously.

We do not understand the propensity of governments and leaders to specialize in debt expansion – knowing jolly well the crisis situation we are in – and which they themselves never cease to remind us of. For heaven’s sake, we genuinely hope that at least one of them gets some sense of the cliff towards which they are potentially leading this country and its future generations. Otherwise, they will be reminded of that at the polls.

* Published in print edition on 28 September 2012

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