The Present Electoral System, and what “Electoral Reform” means
Electoral reform basically means improving the existing electoral system. And since, before we change something, it is worth knowing exactly what it is and what needs changing in it, let us look at what the “electoral system” in Mauritius actually is today, and at what’s wrong with it. But, first a definition: in short, an electoral system is the particular way that, in a given country, the electors’ votes are added up, and the particular procedures followed, that taken together, lead to the formation of a new “Government”.
The existing electoral system in Mauritius
o The country is divided up into 21 Constituencies.
o Once every 5 years (or less), all electors go and place their votes in one of these 21 constituencies, voting for 3 candidates in Mauritius, and 2 in Rodrigues, who stand for election in the constituency.
o Then we get 62 members of the National Assembly or MPs (Members of Parliament) on the basis of the first-three-past-the-post, which will determine which party, and which leader, will take power.
o After the election, the President of the Republic calls in one specific elected MP, who he believes commands a majority, to be Prime Minister. This presidential power is a left-over from the Queen’s or King’s powers under the colonial and feudal system of Government that pre-dated modern Republics. How the President of the Republic knows who to call in as Prime Minister is somewhat opaque, if not to say totally obscure – from a constitutional point-of-view. For a start the President calls in someone who has received votes from electors in only one constituency to be Prime Minister of the whole country, which would be fair enough if everything worked very democratically. But in reality, the President has no constitutional way of knowing who commands the majority in the National Assembly, a majority which enables him to call upon him to be Prime Minister. The President has, for this power, to rely on election results by party and then ... on a mixture of what he has heard about from public meetings, newspaper articles, radio reports, posters and billboards during the electoral campaign to know who the precise man is. (It has never been a woman.)Note that, any Prime Ministerial candidate could find himself not elected in his own constituency, while his party won. Then what would the President do? This kind of result is not only possible, but has happened to some such candidates; had the MMM won in 1987 – it had a high percentage of votes – Bérenger who was leader, could have not been elected in his constituency, for example.
o Another opaque machination also takes place. According to a Schedule latched on to the end of the Constitution of Mauritius, the Electoral Commission, after noting the 62 elected Members of the National Assembly, then proceeds to nominate 8 Best Losers on the basis of their “community” as rigidly defined by this same Schedule and/or on the basis of the political party to which they belong and their “community”, but without these nominations being able to change the outcome of the results in terms of the winning party. So bizarre is this Schedule that the Supreme Court is quite regularly implicated in the nomination process, which then takes quite a while. And often less than 8 best losers are named, because of some complication or other cropping up. Which means that Parliament is not even of a fixed size. Right now, there are 69 instead of 70 MPs.
o Once named, the Prime Minister has an inordinate amount of power. His first power is to name his Ministers, which he does off his own bat, just as a King or Queen would name their Cabinet in the days before general elections in England. This is not democratic.
o The Prime Minister then has power to replace his Ministers as he wishes and to dissolve Parliament when he deems fit, and so it follows that it is he who, in practice, decides which laws to put before Parliament and determines the politics of Government. This, too, is not democratic.
(The history behind the Best Loser System, for the record, is that before Independence the PMSD and CAM ran a campaign in favour of proportional representation, even proposing separate electoral lists for different communities. The Labour Party line of “first past the post” won the day. However, there were 3 concessions to proportional representation, which at the time meant “communal” representation had to be proportional: the fact that there were 3candidates not 1 candidate elected per constituency (2 not 1 for Rodrigues), the fact that constituencies were drawn up of different sizes in order to protect minority communities, and the communal Best Loser system was appended to the Constitution. After Independence the struggle for proportional representation was taken up again, first by the UDM, then by the MMM. The struggle against the communal Best Loser system was taken up by the MMM, who abandoned it, and later by LALIT which has continued the political struggle, while the Rezistans ek Alternativ (RA) has concentrated on a series of legal challenges not to the Best Loser System itself, which they have specifically excluded in writing from their challenges, so much as for the right to stand as candidate without specifying a community.)
So, when people refer to “electoral reform” today, they are talking about changing this system, the system of electors’ votes being organized so as to set up a Government as outlined briefly above. It is a system we inherited at the time of Independence, and which represented the compromises reached, given the balance of political and class forces at that time.
Persistent confusion about what the electoral system is,
and about what electoral reform is
With all sorts of partisan interests coming into play, often conjunctural ones at that, a great deal of confusion has spread and is still spreading further, as to what exactly the electoral system is, and what electoral reform is. People have lost touch with the fact that it means basically how electors’ votes are calculated and how we end up with a Government after elections. Almost all journalists, for example, are up to the eyebrows in confusion, and this amplifies the confusion of ordinary citizens. So generalized is the confusion that we have to be very clear, ourselves, as to what “electoral reform is” and as to what it is not.
Here are a list of some of the political events that have taken place and that have skewed our understanding of what “electoral reform” means.
o When Aneerood Jugnauth and Paul Bérenger were in power after the elections of the year 2000, they gave terms of reference to Albie Sachs who chaired the Committee looking into electoral reform, and these terms of reference included elements that were their strictly partisan concerns. For example, they tagged on subjects as diverse as “the powers of the President” (so that they could arrange their alliances conveniently for future general elections), “electronic voting machines” (no-one knows why, really and it is not part of the “electoral system”, but is merely the physical means of casting a vote), and “the financing of political parties” (it would seem that they put this in to avoid having to tighten up the laws on electoral expenses, which is what they should have been doing). So, ordinary people and even informed barristers and academics began to talk as if it was this miscellaneous hodge-podge of things that meant “electoral reform”.
o Navin Ramgoolam went even further in 2010, he didn’t just attach extraneous other related subjects, but he conflated the subject completely. He blew it up to mean something vast. It was quite outrageous what he did. And it would not have been possible, had Jack Bizlall and Ashok Subron not prepared the terrain for it. Navin Ramgoolam made “electoral reform” include things as immense as “A New Constitution” or “A Second Republic”. These vast changes would be unlikely, given the present balance of class forces, to be anything other than reactionary. They are the kind of changes that are born of a revolution, if they are to be progressive. They are not just invented. In fact, we could expect changes introduced in the present ideological backwater, where neo-liberal ideas of Thatcher and Reagan still reign, to be like those that the Employment Rights Act and the Employment Relations Act, taken as a whole, brought about: that is to say changes that reflect an even more unfavourable climate than those existing at the time of the Industrial Relations Act and the Labour Act that they replaced, did.
o At the same time, RA does the opposite of “conflation”. While paying lip-service to the conflating idea of “New Constitution” and “2nd Republic”, because of the partisan issue of being in an alliance with Jack Bizlall’s Muvman Premye Me, RA reduces the subject of “electoral reform” to being no more than, in their political propaganda, the removal of the “Best Loser” system, and, in their legal cases, obtaining the right for someone to stand election without declaring a “community”. In fact, the Best Loser system, isolated as it is in a Schedule is both a growth upon the Constitution (almost outside of it), and also a tumour that affects not just the Constitution but the entire body politic. But it does not equal “electoral reform” to remove it, or to allow those not declaring their “community” to stand for general elections. And, with the passing of years, the Best Loser System has now become just one aspect of a whole web of institutionalized communalism, some parts of which were nurtured by the Best Loser System. Institutionalized communalism is no longer just the Best Loser system, but a myriad of forms of financing of communities – through and disguised by subsidies on religion, on language, and on culture. The Ministry of Arts and Culture spends almost all its resources, time, and energy on institutionalizing communalism, while real culture, past (like the national archives and all other archives) and present (creative arts and crafts) are royally ignored. And Ministers literally get to speak at communal gatherings, in exchange for the continuation of these subsidies.
o Plus there is yet another confusion that was created by the “Blok 104” that Ashok Subron and Jack Bizlall set up. They say in their radio and press propaganda that they are aiming to get rid of the Best Loser System, which we believe to be the case. However, when they swear affidavits, they do not hesitate to swear that their case, should they win, will in no way whatsoever hamper the operation of the Best Loser System. Not only will it not be done away with, but it will flourish as usual, they swear under oath. All they are struggling for, they swear under oath, is for candidates like themselves to be able to stand for the National Assembly even if they do not declare any community. This kind of duplicity certainly creates confusion, instead of deepening the understanding of a broader and broader sections of the whole people on the issues involved in any electoral reform. The narrow aim of claiming “the right to stand without declaring a community “creates another misunderstanding; it makes people presume that everyone else in Mauritius already has the right to be in the National Assembly. This is just not true. People who cannot read and write can have their elections struck down. People whose English is not good, likewise. There is even a money down-payment involved in candidature (a deposit), a payment which is peanuts to a rich man, but a sum of some consequence to a poor working woman. Civil servants do not have the right to stand for election, not even a postman or a government labourer. And many work contracts are not even illegal when they actually prohibit an employee from standing for office.
A list of the existing Reports on electoral reform
o The Sachs Report (Albie Sachs plus Tandon ek Ahnee) - 2002
o The Collendavelloo MMM Select Committee Report plus the Minority MSM Report drafted by Leung Shing– 2004
o The Carcassonne Report, 2011.
o The Rama Sithanen Proposals, 2012.
o And today, we are still in a state of “Waiting for the Navin Ramgoolam White Paper”.
o LALIT’s Proposals – (1999, 2001 and 2010 leading to this LALIT White Paper)
LALIT’s Philosophy on its Proposals for Electoral Reform
LALIT’s proposals are based on the desire to strengthen and deepen democracy as much as possible within the existing system, because stronger and deeper democracy puts us all in a better position to call into question the entire system, which will, in fact, never, in its present form, be able to build proper democracy. Our aim is to draw into the debate as many people in the broad masses as possible – at the level of the neighbourhood, the village, the work site, clubs, associations, unions – so that together we can find ways to make democracy more widespread. It is not our aim to promote our short-term partisan interests – as an organization – nor is it our aim to reduce the debate to the subject of the right to stand as candidate or to do away with the Best Loser System. We, in LALIT, are at the same time, conscious of the fact that the electoral system is a means. It is not a revolution. It is not even an end, in itself. Democracy too is a means. Democracy is the best means of ensuring progress for our political program which aims to redistribute land, to assure liberty, to assure freedom from exploitation by our fellow humans, to assure food and housing for all, to assure women’s rights, to assure a legal system that is more just, to make space for the struggle for class equality, and towards a classless society. That is why we want to strengthen and deepen democracy. It also explains why other forces do not really want to, and why they confuse, conflate, and narrow down, issues.
LALIT’S PROPOSALS IN BROAD OUTLINE:
Democracy must be deepened by the removal of all anti-democratic hurdles that prevent some people, or classes of people, from becoming a deputy to represent a constituency in the National Assembly. This means the immediate removal from the Constitution of the language and literacy blockades. It also means the lifting on the ban on civil servants and para-statal employees from standing for the National Assembly. It means that it should be made illegal under the Constitution for any work contract to prohibit the full participation in the political life of the country, including standing as a candidate of any employee in the public or private sector, of any employee. It also involves doing away with the obligation to declare a community in order to stand.
o Parliament must be enlarged and have more members, so that the Legislature which is the most democratic part of the State apparatus and which includes all opposition MPs and back-benchers, becomes a larger proportion of the total Parliament, thus reducing the power of the Executive (the nominated Cabinet of Ministers). This would strengthen democracy. In any case, the population has doubled since Independence, while Parliament has remained unchanged, not reflecting this demographic reality at all. The number of Ministers can be limited.
o LALIT proposes that each elector, in a new system, votes for 4deputies in their constituency, 3 in Rodrigues, and 1 for Chagos (including Diego Garcia). 4 x 20 constituencies in the Island of Mauritius, plus 3 for Rodrigues plus 1 for Chagos brings us to a National Assembly of 84 seats. This is still well short of the 140 seats, which would maintain the ratio of MPs to electors established at Independence.
o LALIT puts emphasis on the importance of each MP having to answer to a particular Constituency, just as the present Parliament has it. This is because it gives democratic control by the people over the MP they have elected for their area. We believe that Proportional Representation should not diminish the role of the Constituency, nor involve any MPs without a Constituency.
o We propose that 20 additional MPs are elected through Proportional Representation calculations. This means a better representation in Parliament of the different currents of opinion in the country. We propose that all 20 come from the list of candidates that stood for election in the Constituencies. This could be done by the Party leadership submitting a list of their candidates by order of priority, for the purposes of Proportional Representation, to the Electoral Commissioner before the election date. So, these 20 MPs will also fall under the democratic control of electors in their respective constituencies.
o As soon as they are elected, all Parliamentarians (first past the post and off the proportional representation list) meet in Parliament under the Speaker from the previous Parliament, and immediately elect a new Speaker. Obviously the biggest party or biggest alliance will elect its candidate.
o Then Parliament should at once elect a Leader of the House, who will become the Prime Minister. Obviously he would be the leader of the party or alliance that controls a majority. The important part, though, is that the Prime Minister then gets his/her mandate as Prime Minister from the totality of Parliamentarians, and not from some vestigial power of the Queen of England that the President of the Republic has kept up his sleeve. This change that we propose would represent a further deepening of democracy, and a further working of democratic principles. It would end up with similar results to what we have now, but the democratic process would be in operation, and be seen to be in operation.
o When the Prime Minister has been sworn in by the President, he immediately comes back to Parliament, proposes his whole Cabinet list to Parliament, which elects or rejects the Cabinet en bloc. This is yet another strengthening of democracy and of democratic principles. It would be not just the Prime Minister who is naming Ministers, but the MPs electing them. Again, it would generally be the same people, but the process would be more enlightened, more rational, more understood.
o In more general terms, all democratic principles ensure the those who elect someone have the right of recall over them, i.e. the right to revoke them. These principles are already in lively existence, as everyone knows, in Mauritius. Associations, co-operatives, unions and clubs all over the country already work on this principle. Electorally speaking, it would mean the right for electors in a Constituency to revoke their deputy/ies by means of an electoral petition. It would also mean the right for MPs to revoke Ministers individually or the whole cabinet, through a motion, and even to revoke the Prime Minister. This would limit the Prime Minister’s powers by making him/her more democratically accountable.
o The Prime Minister should maintain the right to dissolve Parliament and head for new elections at any time. This maintains the democratic power in the hands of the people, especially in times of crisis.
o The communal Best Loser system will no longer have its raison d’etre when there are 20 seats from proportional representation, and with 4 MPs per constituency, and with maintaining the principle of unequal-sized constituencies in order to avoid any geographic/communal/religious under-representation.
o We propose that women’s representation is assured by a system similar to that already adopted by the Local Government Act, and by sex alternation in the Party List for proportional representation.
So, in more general terms, our aim is to make the question of the deepening of democracy take centre-stage in the debate on electoral reform.
Our proposals, incidentally, were developed, within our Party, in a democratic way too. We held a series of 6 party meetings once a fortnight for some 3 months, meetings that were open to members of organizations that work alongside LALIT on different issues and open to some lawyers. We spent time coming to grips with the nitty-gritty of the present system first, then discussing all the issues from the point-of-view of deepening and strengthening democracy so as to come up with proposals that go in that direction.