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Electoral Reform - Desperate Men vs. Hope born of Reason

14.11.2018

Xavier Duval has gone on a new tack, or more precisely gone on the old PMSD tack: he, who was against the Best Loser System, now actively calls for a communal census; he, who has, for all his political life, respected the twin Electoral Boundaries and Supervisory Commissions, now calls for their dissolution. His new tack is dangerous.


 A communal or “ethnic” census would summon into frenetic activity communalo-religious leaders of all ilk, all already far too active in their self-promoting ruses. Community – the toxic mix of religion and so-called ethnicity – is the construct used by the devious to divide, then rally, part of the unsuspecting masses of people, who are right now genuinely suffering the ravages of hidden unemployment and overt job insecurity, and to offer them up on a plateau to the desperate men that all leaders of traditional political parties have now become. A communal census would give the men in this interface role the signal that the time has come to ramp up their incendiary games. What is in it for them? Money. Contracts. Tenders. Nominations. Promotion. Power. Simple as that. What is in it for political leaders of mainstream parties? Political support at the margin, just enough to make the difference between losing and winning an election. What is in it for the people of the country? At best, unpleasant divisions at work, in the neighbourhood, amongst friends, and even within families. At worst, a new round of race wars – something too hideous to contemplate.


 Fortunately, all the main parties publicly oppose Duval’s call for a communal census and to dissolve the Electoral Commission. But, the danger of communalization around these issues is not easy to appease once roused. This is because people in Mauritius are genuinely anguished about the future. While the Government pretends 90% of Mauritians are home-owners, the cruel reality is that half of us live with less rights than a tenant, blighted by the permanent conflict of being trapped in a “lakaz zeritye”; the State has not ensured enough housing, while the Code Napoleon “forced heirs” system divides houses into less and less viable bits. And while the Government pretends there is a 7% rate of unemployment, even the MCB Focus (Nov 2018) bemoans the way these statistics mask genuine “under-employment” and the fact of a mere 58.7% “activity rate”, which obviously includes those sick of looking for a job. It is easy for the opportunist, the populist or the ambitious to get people then to blame their “community”, “religion”, “ethnicity”, or “caste” – especially in the face of the propaganda that everyone in Mauritius is doing just fine. It feels to most of us like the “everyone” must be everyone “except me and mine”, whoever we are.  


 No way to Fight Racism by resorting to Classification


Racism, which exists and needs to be opposed, and opposed again, every time we see it, cannot be successfully opposed by calling for more classification of people by race or “community”. The effect would be the contrary. It is generally accepted that “race” does not exist (humanity is a continuum with the same ancestors) – except as a belief system in Nazi and other right-wing ideology. “Community” is a mix-up of “race” and religion and putative geographical “roots”, a legacy of irrational divisions from colonization, even if the term “ethnicity” replaces the discredited word “race”. The perpetuation of this awful daily classification – the worst legacy of slavery and indenture – is what already, both formally and informally, reproduces the very racism and communalism that is the problem in the first place.


 One would think the coming to power in the USA of the white supremacist ideologues behind Donald Trump, and the rise of fascism and “nationalist identity” in so many European countries’ extreme right-wing parties, would make people put into question the American-led way of resorting to ethnic classification for the purposes of “affirmative action”. That people have the good intention of attempting to get rid of racism is just no excuse for perpetuating the ideology of persistent, irrelevant ethnic classification, which is fuel to racist fires. In any case, using classification for “non-discrimination” purposes is the feeble resort of those who have given up hope of more human equality. Non-discrimination is the pathetically reduced aim, instead, to distribute inequality equally amongst different categories of people. It happily thrives along with an increase in inequality over time. Theoretically it even could call, for example, for more police brutality against some categories of people, to eliminate discrimination!


 No way to improve democracy by blackmailing the EBC into doing Std III arithmetic


Equally dangerous is Duval’s call for the Electoral (Boundaries-Supervisory) Commission to be dissolved. This institution has managed, since Independence, to maintain an integrity many other institutions in the country have lost or never had. And it will not be easy to replace the longstanding traditions of such a Commission. The recent nomination of Pravind Jugnauth’s personal attorney, close to his MSM party, as member of the Commission comes as a timely reminder of its vulnerability to political influence. The role of the Electoral Commission is crucial to the little democracy that the people of Mauritius fought so hard to get, as we threw off the shackles of slavery, indenture, and the dictatorship of colonization, before and since 1968.


 On the Electoral Commission question, Duval is, here too, acting out of despair. He is calling for the number of electors per MP to be more equal. Fair enough. And it is a Constitutional guideline. But, Duval knows full well that electoral reform, as it is proposed by most parties right now, is far from everyone’s preoccupation and offers people nothing. For people to grasp the issues is not easy. By contrast, the question of the “numbers” of electors per MP is dead easy. Just divide by 20. So Duval, the populist, grabs the question and runs with it.


 But a problem like the inequality of numbers of people in different constituencies cannot be addressed by technocratic, legalistic or piecemeal ways that Duval proposes. The present system is, as Rama Sithanen points out on 9 November in L’Express, an historic “pact” made in the mass mobilization of 30 years in the run-up to Independence. The pact includes, for example, an over-compensation for two constituencies in Port Louis by keeping them small, for fear of an under-representation of a minority religious “community”. It also includes the over-valuation of electors per MP in the 10 rural constituencies relative to the 10 urban ones, for fear of over-representation of another religious “community” in the countryside. So, boundaries cannot just be amended as if it were simple arithmetic.


 Fortunately, not just the MSM-ML but all the Opposition Parties, have publicly opposed Duval on this, too. The Electoral Commission can’t just come up with a whole new pact based on equal constituencies either. Usually, big changes in a Constitution come with a revolutionary mobilization leading to the election of a Constituent Assembly. Any more minor reforms, especially in times of popular demobilization like the present times, imperatively need to look at the issues holistically. And this is political work. Not the work of Law Lords or the UN system.


 We need to look at how to move towards more democracy for the entire people, as our main political aim. This gives everyone a stake. For example, people get to revoke those they elect. Those they elect, in turn, get to have more power relative to the executive. And while working towards this, one can correct for other issues, like aiming to decrease and not increase communalism, like equalizing populations in constituencies. While each MP representing a similar number of people is a reasonable aim, it is also very relative. In the USA, for example, California with 40,000,000 people and Wyoming with 600,000 both have two senators. One has 65 times more people than the other for the same two senators! And they get to confirm a Judge like Brett Kavanaugh! Even at level of the House of Representatives, where equality is aimed at, Montana has nearly twice as many as Wyoming, for example.


 We, in LALIT, do not know that Duval genuinely believes in his calls for an “ethnic” census and for the dissolution of the Electoral Commission, as “fatras”. Why do we think Duval is acting as he is, then?  


 We need some context to understand his change of tack from modernist to populist. Against a history of the PMSD being an extreme-right wing party – overtly close to old man Le Pen – representing the interests of the anti-independence, anti-socialist, anti-workerist sugar barons, a party run by their man Gaetan Duval, who said he represented “black power” while wanting Mauritius to remain a colony. His son and heir Xavier, in sharp contrast, cultivated the image of a modern, technocratic leader.


 And he got quite far.


 Remember how he was the most popular Minister in 2015 in the MSM-PMSD-ML Government? In survey after survey? How he, himself, and many others saw in him the next Prime Minister? He decided to go for it. He pulled out of Government and replaced Bérenger as Leader of the Opposition, in preparation for his expected rise to Prime Minister.


 But the PMSD failed its first test. Remember? Remember the PMSD scored less than 10% of the votes in the bye-election? And came 5th amongst just opposition parties in the race? Remember how during the campaign a PMSD leader, suspended then re-instated, made rape threats against the woman Speaker? And remember how one of its leading members described their own party recently, in a sexist remark, as a “zoli mamzel” awaiting a suitable boy?


 Well, when a political leader has a drastic fall from grace like this, he can get desperate. Duval has, over the same period, had to endure death threats from the then Vice Prime Minister Soodhun. This, may, quite understandably, have destabilized Duval. But despair, whatever its cause, can lead to dangerous actions like Duval’s new tack.


 He knows that the Mauritian State has to act. He knows that the UN Human Rights Committee has landed Mauritius in a predicament with its ultimatum: it says either you do away with the Best Loser System – a tall order for a Government without a three-quarter majority, elected on a program to keep the BLS – or you do a new communal census – an order that it is positively dangerous. Duval found this predicament useful. He has the backing of the UN to call for a new communal census if the Best Loser System is to stay.


 In fact, this predicament is, in turn, due to a similar past action, also of despair, by another politician who was desperate some 14 years ago. Ashok Subron was a desperate man in 2004, having got a dozen LALIT members to resign without a programmatic reason. Dazed, he seized upon a legalistic tactic that gave him media mileage for years: he fielded candidates in 2005, set up Blok 104 in 2010, and stood again in 2014, refusing to fill in anything in the box for “community”. When these candidates’ Nomination Papers were duly rejected, they went to the Supreme Court, the Privy Council and the UN. Although Rezistans and Blok 104 candidates are against the Best Loser System, they swore under oath in affidavits that they were not challenging it. They swore it would continue hunky- dory. They were only pretending. This kind of opportunism, or as Iqbal Khan puts it in a fine article in Weekly of 8 November, “misguided” action, has finally provoked the unintended consequence of the UN Human Rights Committee, obliviously calling on the Mauritian State to either do away with the Best Loser System or do a new communal census.


 Importantly, even the Best Loser System cannot, because of the historic pact before Independence, just be done away with because some UN Committee says so. As well as needing a three-quarters majority of democratically elected representatives, it would probably require, in the present communal climate, something like a massive enlargement of the National Assembly, a further empowerment of the National Assembly relative to the Cabinet along the lines that LALIT proposes; it would also probably be necessary to include things like the right of recall. All this, so that the people benefit from the reform. And then you would need the kind of dose of proportional representation that LALIT proposes and perhaps 4- rather than 3-member Constituencies to further cushion the possible communalo-religious results. Otherwise, with the increase in systemic communalism, there could be real dangers of fanning the very communalism that RA aims at decreasing. Going for the alternative of a communal census would, of course, be even worse.


 On a more hopeful note, in LALIT, we note a number of stands against communal or ethnic classification as well as those by the mainstream political leaders. Here are some.


 First, Cardinal Piat has, in measured language, distanced himself from calls by some populist Catholic priests for renewed communal classification. He thus helped defuse the situation, already escalating with a communal leader at Hindu House rudely saying Jugnauth should ignore them.


 Second, the anthropologist, Thomas Eriksen, has taken a measured stand against communal classification in an interview in L’Express on 12 November and put the question of more equality back on to the agenda. Most academics just classify by community or ethnicity as if it is the way to get their research funded, and they ignore the glaring class inequality.


 Third, in an interesting article in Le Mauricien on 30 October, Olivier Precieux argues against communal classification, while describing his own intellectual movement away from having been inclined to it.


 Fourthly, there is the Sithanen article already referred to.


 All this to say that we have the elements of a rational debate.


 The fact that the MSM-ML proposal for electoral reform is somewhat frivolous, does not mean we do not need the debate. But, major constitutional changes, if they are to bring more freedom, are the fruit of big, mass movements. Contemplating electoral reform during times of a down-turn in political activity of the broad masses of people and just because a UN Committee says so, means we must be careful to propose changes that are holistic, and to avoid unintended consequences of piecemeal amendments. Our main aim must be for more democracy – and by that, in LALIT, we mean quite simply, more power to the people, in the first place, and more power to their elected representatives relative to the executive branch, in the second place. Aiming for less communalism or for more equal constituencies then becomes part of the aim for more democracy. And people can see it in a proper perspective of increasing their power over their lives.


 And we must remember why we need more democracy. We need it in the struggle for more equality in society.


 At present in the real world, as if to highlight the need for this big picture, the State uses the peoples’ money to subsidize villas that the sugar estate bosses sell to the rich for Rs75 million, while it turns a blind eye to those working for a living having to eke out their lives with two-or-three households under one leaking roof. Two thousand families live today in asbestos housing, sold to them by Government – housing too dangerous for them to demolish and dispose of, themselves, and too dangerous to continue living in. The asbestos inexorably turns to dust that is toxic to breathe. While Jugnauth’s Government subsidizes the sugar cane bosses in their sale of villas to billionaires.


 Such are the inequalities that we need more democracy to reduce.


 Notes:


LALIT’s 232 page book Against Communalism of the Best Loser System, LPT 2005.


And Recent Article: “LALIT’s Proposals for Electoral Reform Made Easy” at http://www.lalitmauritius.org/en/newsarticle/2166/lalitrsquos-electoral-reform-proposals-ndash-made-easy/