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Talk to Students on Electoral Reform by Lindsey Collen


Lindsey Collen, one of LALIT’s leading members, gave a one-hour talk to about ninety students at the University in the north, on Tuesday 22 October, and answered their questions for another one hour. The theme was “Electoral Reform: With reference to the representation of women in the National Assembly, and the problem of the communal corrective (Best Loser System).”

The questions and comments at the end included the following:

“Why is it that we only end up with two alliances to choose from each time an election comes, and that the political parties change alliance-partners for each election?”

“Would it be useful to create a post of Vice-Prime Minister, and keep this reserved for women?”

“Is it politicians who are responsible for the communal problems in the country? If not, where does this communalism come from? If yes, or in any case, how can we decrease it, and return to a society where there is more co-operation?”

“Do the youth wings of the Parliamentary parties represent a youth voice, or are they under control of the leadership?”

“Why is it that LALIT is not in Parliament? In other countries smaller parties voices are heard in their national assemblies.”

“When a young person shows interest in politics, why is it that he then risks being accused (falsely) of drugs or other things to tarnish his reputation?”

“When will Mauritius get a woman Prime Minister?”

“The United Nations does not enforce political decisions anywhere in the world. How can we expect it to do so in Mauritius over the Best Loser System?”

“What do you think of a Best Loser System for women?”

Here is a written version of Lindsey’s talk, reconstructed from her notes and translated from the Kreol original into English:

Before coming to the question you have asked me to address today, that is to say “electoral reform”, I will need to give a short introduction as to what general elections are, and this, in turn, will cause me to have to give a short introduction as to what “the State” is, because we are talking about that tiny, but very important, part of the State, that we elect. This will be the first part of my talk. There will be six parts in all, which I shall give headings to, so that you can all follow my argumentation:

1. The Introduction on elections and the State.
2. An outline of the present electoral system in Mauritius
3. Women’s representation in the National Assembly.
4. The communal corrective, or Best Loser System
5. The political forces that have brought the issue of electoral reform to the forefront right now.
6. Some suggestions to improve the electoral system in Mauritius.

Part I: Who is elected to the State? What is this State they are elected to?
When we talk about electoral reform, we are talking about the changes that are being sought by different political forces to the way in which we elect 70 officers of the State to that small part of our central government that is democratic: the National Assembly
So, what is the State? It is basically the way that the 1% rule over the other 99%, to use the language of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. It is also worth bearing in mind that for most of humanity’s history there was no State. For some 95,000 years of our 100,000 years or so existence as a species, we did not have a State, that apparatus that is separate from the people in society.
And it is true to say that an old lady who lives in a village and cuts grass on a bit of unused Sugar Estate’s land for her cow, often has a much clearer idea of what “the State” is, than all the academics at the University of Mauritius. Let me explain this statement. She knows, from her daily life, the three basic components of the State:

- She knows that when she sets off to cut grass with her sickle and in her sandals, she knows that at the shop where she bought her sickle and sandals, 15% of what she paid goes to the State, by a complicated system of check-off, all put in place for the purpose. It is called VAT. The State is the body that taxes people.

- She knows that, when she cuts grass on sugar estate land, the police will come and confiscate her sickle, arrest her, take her to the police station, haul her before a magistrate, and condemn her to pay a fine. She knows that it is the State that does this. It represses her, and enforces the loony idea that the land, nature’s own production, even if unused, is not available for her to use, and that if she does venture on to this land, she is in “trespass”, and will be punished. The birds of the air can use the grass of the Sugar Estate, and the mongoose can run around in the Estates’ lands, without the State interfering. But human beings are prevented from living off the land, even walking on some land, by something called “the State”. The State is a body that has a monopoly of repression, and that enforces things like land ownership.

- She knows how it is a set of ideas that allow the 1% of the rich to rule over the other 99%. When she tells what happens, she will put emphasis on the pronouns of the tale she tells: “I was on his land, when his police came and arrested me, and hauled me up before his magistrate.” (“Mo ti lor so later, so lapolis finn vinn aret mwa, ti trenn mwa divan so mazistra.”) She realizes that the State rules for a class, “his” class. The State has indeed, over history, as the old lady who cuts grass for her cow knows only too well today, ruled in the interests of a dominant class.

So there you have it, the State is the authority that taxes, represses by violence, and through ideas (ideology) convinces you that this is normal. If you question it, as the old lady might, she will, if she persists too loudly end up in Beau Bassin, either in the prison or the madhouse.

The earliest States in many parts of the world, were theocracies. The end of the word “cracy” refers to a kind of reign or rule. The “theo” part refers to the gods. So, a theocracy is the rule by a religious class. You cede taxes to them, because they control the gods (and the gods were creatures of many whims); you bow down to their orders because they have violence at their beck and call, if you don’t, but before they resort to violence, they already have a set of ideas that you go along with to the effect that they are the rightful rulers, truly god-ordained in the case of a theocracy.

Theocracies were often displaced, through violent revolutions and a good deal of hangings and head-chopping, by monarchies, the rule by one king or queen. This rule then takes the tax, controls repression in the country, and has an ideology that the king has better blood, and therefore his descendents must rule, logically. The Incas in what we now call South America ruled over their people by being gods, themselves. It is a kind of caste rule.

Then, this changed in many places. For example, Henry VIII some 500 years ago, in England, with the help of some torture and some hangings, did away with the Vatican’s 1200-year rule in England. Tax was from then on collected by the King’s men, not the Vatican, and they also took over the repression that the Inquisition otherwise ran for the Vatican, and justified this new rule partly by blood and land that the King and his nobles controlled, and partly by the King declaring himself to be head of the church (Church of England). So, even today the Queen Elizabeth II, although her power has subsequently become negligible, is still head of the Church! Britain is a vestigial theocracy, in a way, as well as a vestigial monarchy.

The rule of monarchs in Europe, was challenged very recently. Some 250 years ago, a new class having burgeoned amongst the old feudal classes, took control. It is called, appropriately because it had burgeoned, the bourgeoisie. And today we live in a bourgeois or capitalist State. However, the name that the bourgeoisie gave its State, “democracy” which means rule by the people, is deceptive. It is part of its ideology. I say this because, as I mentioned, only a tiny part of the State is actually elected. The rest of the officers of the State are nominated, and they are nominated in the interests of the State that rules in favour of the bourgeois class. Only some 70, in Mauritius, out of nearly 100,000 officers of the State, are elected. However, small as this number is, it is this part of the State, this elected part, that it is vital for us to protect, develop, understand, and to use, in order to fight for more democracy. So, it is a vital subject you have asked me to speak on: “electoral reform”.

Part 2: The existing Mauritian Electoral System

So, the electoral system in Mauritius is the operating system for that tiny bit of the State apparatus that is enlightened and democratic. In Mauritius, elections are quite new. Only 100 years or so have seen elections here. Then, only the land-owners could vote, and after the election, the British colonizers nominated most of the members of the Council. From about 60 years ago, all adults got the right to vote, but the British went on nominating some people to the Council. It was only 44 years ago, when Mauritius became independent that everyone in Parliament became elected. (Even then, when we come to the communal corrective, you will notice that some nomination has persisted from colonial times.)

Now, for the system. How many of you voted in 2012? …. Ah, about half of you present today. Well, you voted for three candidates in your own constituency, right? Yes, and they were elected or not. Most people, nearly all of us, vote by “party”. So this means “parties” are an important part of the electoral system. Anyway, these sets of three who got “First past the post” are all added up, as they get elected, and whichever party gets a majority, gets to have the post of Prime Minister. How do we find the leader of that party, who is to become Prime Minister? He is the leader of the party with a majority, but he cannot always become Prime Minister. He has to have been elected in his own Constituency. So, how does the President know who to call in as Prime Minister? The President has no formal way of knowing other than looking at whose poster has been stuck up on the billboards and electric pylons, as leader for that party. Quite literally. Then he calls him in. Then, and here, we can see the remnants of the system of rule by the King’s men, by the King’s cabinet. The Prime Minister just nominates his Ministers. They, therefore, have to tow the line. They do not elect the Prime Minister. Nor are they elected by the National Assembly, as Cabinet members. Now anyone here who is member of a club, an association, a union, a students’ union, a co-operative knows that this is not democratic. Your general assembly elects your Executive Committee, which in turn elects the officers of the Union for a year. All are revocable by those who elected them.

But, the National Assembly is, nevertheless, itself elected. It is more under democratic control than, say, the civil service, the judiciary, the police, the DPP, all of whom are not elected, or not yet chosen through elections.

But the National Assembly is powerless, compared to the Cabinet, and the Cabinet is powerless relative to the Prime Minister. So, the system is much less democratic than it seems to be. And it is this that makes it so easy for the Prime Minister (any Prime Minister) to rule in the interests, in the general interests, of the bourgeoisie. It is their State. And he controls a tiny bit of it.

Part 3: Women’s Representation
Everyone knows that women, who are over 50% of the population are about 10% or less in the National Assembly, and this is the case ever since Independence, and was worse before. This is often used as an “indicator” of women’s emancipation. Thus, the rush to change things, right now. Mauritius’ reputation for human rights is threatened. So, the State’s answer is to tweak one of the indicators. So, the Municipal and Village elections due in a few weeks, have a new law whereby 33% of candidates of parties have to be women. But, this, by itself is not much contribution to women’s emancipation, but tends instead to mask the oppression of women.

What is the real reason behind the gross under-representation of women? The reason is that the mainstream parties do not field women candidates. Why do they not do so? For two reasons, and this gives an idea of the fundamental changes necessary in society:

- There are a series of capitalist lobbies that fund parties, and that control a candidate or two, in each of the main alliances: the bankers and other finance capitalists, for example, are often at war with the free zone textile bosses, so they each have their candidates. The hotel bosses and the sugar estates, the importers and the exporters, all have wildly clashing interests, so they vie to control the National Assembly.

-There are a series of communalo-religious lobbies, and these also control a candidate or two, in each of the main alliances. Different religions and socio-cultural groups, subsidised by the State, in turn offer “vote banks” (often grossly exaggerated) to parties.

Now, the good thing for women, is that these lobbies do not have faith in women. Women, they believe, are not too good at pretending to represent the interests of their electors, while actually deciding things in the interests of one or other group of capitalists, or of a religious interest. So much the better for women.

Those hierarchies are what need to be attacked (the companies with their pyramid structure), and it is not real emancipation for women to be drawn into these oppressive roles.

Part 4: Communal Corrective (the communal Best Loser System)
At the time of Independence, from 1965 onwards, the big owners of the economy were very worried that their rule was being challenged, and in order to thrwart Independence, they used underhand political means in order to provoke communal problems, that eventually turned into a full-scale communal war in Port Louis, causing the communal preponderance of different communities in all the suburbs of Port Louis, as people fled after being attacked. Muslims had to withdraw from Baie du Tombeau, Cassis, Ste. Croix, into Plaine Verte and Vallee Pitot, while whole Cites like Richelieu were set up for refugees of the Creole community from Plaine Verte and Vallee Pitot, while Vallee des Pretres became a haven for people of Hindu religion. The conflict was not “between communities”, but between gangs that were predominantly one or another community, and this combined with looting houses that had been fled from. Anyway, the Constitution was being drafted at a time when people understandably feared that voting might go on communal lines. In particular, people felt that the “majority community” might win “majority” votes in many constituencies, and this added to the anxiety. A compromise was eventually reached, whereby after elections in which there was no communal element, there was the nomination of 8 additional MPs, four on purely communal lines, 4 to rectify any party imbalance caused while also respecting communal imbalance in this round, too.

The long-term bad effects of the system can be listed:

- the population has to be classified into the four communities outlined by the BLS.

- candidates have to classify themselves by community in order to stand for the National Assembly.

-After general election results, the Electoral Commission has to study the classification of each elected member, and then classify all those not elected, too, so the entire National Assembly gets infected in retrospect.

- the system establishes the concept of a communal majority and communal minorities.

- as two of the communities are defined by religion, which is, to some limited extent, a choice, while Sino-Mauritian is defined by something you cannot change, your putative ancestors, and another is all those who are left (it used to be all but new immigrants), it is very unstable; in reality, there are people who feel they are in no community or in some other community not defined in the four, or in multiple communities.

So, people vote for a Party, a program, and individual candidate they admire, and then afterwards the Electoral Commission, just like the colonial government did, nominates others – this time on the basis of community.

And the degree of communalism amongst the people changes over time. When there is an upturn in the struggle for change, people mobilize, and naturally the hope of a better society, makes communal interpretations (often of one’s suffering) less common than class interpretations, and people develop a wonderful sense of unity. In the years 1970 to 1982 or so, there was such an anti-communal and non-communal feeling that it would have been easy to do away with the BLS after the 60-0 victory in 1982. The Parliament could have just changed the Constitution to name 8 best losers on party basis, finish with it, while introducing a light dose of Proportional Representation.

Part 5: The Political will for Electoral Reform right now

The MSM does not want electoral reform. Aneerood Jugnauth, with his usual frankness, has announced that the electoral system has worked well enough until now, so no need to change it. The PMSD has said it will do whatever the Labour Party does. So, the impetus for change does not come from these two parties.

Paul Bérenger’s MMM is in favour of Proportional Representation. This party has a solid electorate, which is often under-represented under the First Past the Post System. This is the MMM’s interest in electoral reform. This is its driving force.

Navin Ramgoolam has publicly said he wants to be a President with power. This is, it seems, the impetus for change coming from him. This is his driving force.

So, both of them, the MMM and Labour, are using the UN Human Rights Committee Best Loser judgment in order to advance their aims. They are using it in order to craft an electoral alliance (MMM-PT), and to advance these two rather dangerous aims, in the sense that they are looking at the interest of their parties, not the entire people, and are bartering on issues of principle.

The MMM, when it comes to the BLS itself, has used double-speak. It says it will not touch the BLS, and yet it removes the question on community from the Census and it welcomes the Balancy judgement whereby candidates do not have to classify themselves. On communal issues, it is dangerous to confuse issues like this. (In passing, the Rezistans team have also used a very similar double-speak: they under oath declare in their affidavits in their cases that they are not in any way affecting the workings of the BLS, while in the Press they run a campaign about how daring they are to confront it frontally. This has had the boomerang effect of causing the UN Committee to call for, inter alia, a new communal census, something Rezistans does not want, although their case seemed, in its double-speak, to call for it. Fortunately, both Ramgoolam and Berenger have spoken against this reactionary solution.)

Both the MMM and Rezistans have, through double-speak, contributed to galvanizing the opposition to the BLS rather dangerously. And meanwhile, since about 1987, the growth of communalo-religious associations, in tight connection with political parties (especially when in power) has become a vast powerful form of institutionalized communalism. All this makes it more difficult to do away with the BLS today, than it was 30 years ago. Bigger changes will be necessary in order to bring about change in this harmful addendum to the Constitution, without provoking worse communalism that there is at present.

Part 6: Some Reforms needed
1. We elect the National Assembly, which needs to elect the Cabinet, which needs, in turn, to elect the Prime Minister. This will give proper democratic form to the Legislature. This gives scope for the right of recall at all levels, a form of democracy we are all already familiar with in our associations.

2. We need a larger National Assembly, not only to make it easier to do away with the BLS, nor only to represent people in the same way as we were represented at Independence (since 1968, the population has doubled, while the 70 MPs has stayed the same), but we need a Legislature that is numerically much stronger than the Executive (the cabinet). This will make for more democracy. Since the National Assembly is the only elected part, its larger size increases its leverage, even if slightly, in the entire State apparatus.

3. We propose that each constituency has 4 candidates, plus 3 for Rodrigues and 1 for Chagos including Diego Garcia. That adds up to 84.

4. In addition, we propose 20 PR seats from a list of candidates, submitted before the elections, and who were not elected in the first past the post exercise, in proportion to the strength of the parties established by a party vote on a separate ballot paper (as is already done in Rodrigues).

5. For women, it is, as we have already seen for local government, dead easy to legislate.

6. Gradually all subsidies from the State to religious organizations, communal, ethnic, language-based organizations, must be stopped, on the basis of the corruption it has caused, as well as the communalism it fans. These organizations must be independent.

7. More than anything, we need a nation-wide deep debate on the issues, especially as these kind of issues like electoral reform, and specially the BLS, can be dangerously divisive, in times of economic crisis.