Reforming Mauritius’s electoral system: More gender and less communal representation?
Mauritius is considering constitutional reforms that could enhance gender inclusivity, abolish communal representation, and introduce elements of proportional representation. Nevertheless, gender representation would not extend to cabinet positions; limited proportional representation may be insufficient to address deep-rooted disproportionality; and the abolition of the Best Loser System without a suitable replacement may further undermine the representation of underrepresented minority groups. Moreover, the level of popular engagement in the reform process has been remarkably low – writes Amar Mahadew.
At the end of 2018, the Mauritian government tabled a constitutional amendment bill aimed at reforming the electoral system, designed more than half a century ago. The government has indicated that the proposed reforms will ensure better representation of political parties and women in parliament and enhance social cohesion. If approved, the reforms will guide the elections planned for the end of 2019/early 2020.
Electoral reform has been on the political agenda of various governments in the last three decades. Multiple commissions have been established to advise on electoral reform – the Sachs Report 2004, Select Committee Report 2004, the Carcassone Report 2011, the Sithanen Report 2012 and the 2014 Consultation Paper on Electoral Reform. There has also been general consensus not only among political parties but also civil society organizations and the broader public that the electoral system requires adjustments to reflect modern Mauritian societal realities. Nevertheless, there is disagreement on the details.
The overarching objectives of the recent proposed amendment has been announced as the consolidation and widening of the contours of democracy, providing for greater participation of women in the political life of the country and promoting nation building and national unity. The reform proposals have been made public and both opposition political parties and the general public have been invited to contribute to this national debate. Nevertheless, popular engagement has largely been absent.
The 2014 political manifesto of the current ruling coalition (Alliance Lepep) outlined the general goals of electoral reform. It consisted of the introduction of a dose of proportional representation (PR) in the National Assembly and guarantees of better women representation, the creation of anti-defection legislation to make it more difficult for members of the National Assembly to ‘cross the floor’, and the enactment of a Financing of Political Parties Act.
Disparity between votes polled and seats won by parties, under-representation of women and the communization of representation have bedeviled the current electoral system.
Mauritius uses the first-past-the-post electoral system through 20 constituencies from which three candidates receiving the highest number of votes are elected to the unicameral National Assembly, making it an initial 60 directly elected members. Two seats are reserved for candidates from Rodrigues, which is part of the Republic of Mauritius. In addition, a maximum of eight members are chosen on the basis of the Best Loser System (BLS), which is intended to correct possible imbalances in community parliamentary representation. The BLS enables the allocation of seats to candidates on the basis of their community/religion. The Electoral Supervisory Commission proposes a list of best losers, that is candidates with the highest number of votes but who have come fourth in their constituency. It then retains up to eight considering fair and adequate representation of all the communities in Mauritius.
While the current system has served the country through 11 general elections since independence in 1968 and has been the reason for the relative political stability of the country, it has started to show certain imperfections. These include disparity between votes polled and seats won by parties, the under-representation of women in the National Assembly and the categorization of Mauritians into four groups or communities (Hindu, Muslim, Sino-Mauritian and General Population, mainly referring to people of African descent) for the purpose of seat allocations through the BLS.
Towards proportional representation and gender balance?
The proposed amendment seeks to remedy the above anomalies. One of the amendments proposes an exception to the protection from discrimination such that a minimum number of candidates for election would have to be of a particular sex in view of enhancing women participation. Accordingly, every party with more than two candidates at a general election would be required to ensure that not more than two-thirds of the total number of candidates sponsored by that party are of the same sex. Noncompliance with this provision would result in all the candidates of that party being considered independents. Political parties that do not respect the gender clause would not benefit from seats allocated through PR. Mauritius already introduced a requirement that at least one-third of members of local assemblies should be women in 2012.
Women constitute just 11.59% of the current National Assembly.
This measure is particularly welcome since Mauritius ranks among the lowest in the SADC region as well as worldwide in terms of women’s representation. In the 2014 National Assembly elections, only eight women were elected members out of 69 (62 directly elected plus seven through the BLS), representing 11.59% of the parliamentary membership. Women representation in parliament has ranged from 0% in 1967 to 18.84% in 2010 and the country has failed to fulfil the commitment taken at the SADC Summit of 1997 in Malawi to achieve at least 30% women representation in parliament already by 2005. Nevertheless, the proposed reform only establishes the quota for the inclusion of women candidates and does not necessarily ensure that one-third of parliamentarians will actually be women. Moreover, the proposed reform only applies to parliament and local authorities and does not anticipate similar gender representation in the cabinet, judiciary and other important independent institutions. So far, unfortunately, neither political parties nor civil society organizations have come forward with a comprehensive gender policy reform proposal.
The proposed reforms would also introduce a dose of PR. This proposal would increase the total number of members of parliament to 85. Sixty-three members would be selected from 21 three-member constituencies through the first-past-the-post system. In addition, 12 seats will be distributed based on the share of votes of political parties. A maximum of ten additional seats will also be allocated, although the mechanics of this allocation are not clear in the proposed amendments. Rodrigues would elect three instead of two candidates, but would not benefit from proportional representation or additional seats. In addition to accommodating the proportional seats, the proposed increase in the number of members of parliament has been connected to the rise of the number of voters (from 314 004 during independence to 923 316 today). The Prime Minster noted that the reform will enhance the proximity, presence and availability of elected representatives on the field to attend to their various demands and grievances.
Opposition groups argue that the principal problem that needs reform is the unequal size of electoral constituencies.
Nevertheless, while opposition parties have indicated their support to the gender reforms, they have rejected the proposed increase in the number of members of parliament as expensive and unsustainable. According to the opposition, PR would simply empower party leaders, enabling them to substitute themselves for the electorate, and would not address fundamental disproportions that result from the dominant first-past-the-post system. For instance, the current ruling coalition won more than two-thirds of the seats with under half of the votes in the 2014 elections. The opposition has also indicated that in the absence of any guidance in the appointment of the proposed ten additional seats, the reforms would merely empower already powerful party leaders. They also suggest that the core problem in Mauritius relates to the unequal size of constituencies. Despite the preparation of a report on this issue by the Electoral Boundaries Commission in 2009, the government has refused to table it before parliament. Under the law, the conduct of the study by the commission is mandatory, but the tabling of such a report before parliament by the government is not. The opposition has indicated that it will challenge the government before the courts to force it to table the report before parliament.
Away from communal representation?
The application of the BLS system requires the mandatory classification of people within the four communities mentioned above. It has faced criticism for purportedly accentuating communal identities, in a manner detrimental to nation building and social harmony, and other problems associated with its practical application. The amendment proposes repealing the First Schedule to the Constitution (which provides for the BLS) and replacing it by a First Schedule to the Bill.
The mandatory indication of candidates’ communal affiliation on nomination papers has been abolished, at the behest of people who do not wish to be categorized along ethnic/religious lines, and following a decision of the UN Human Rights Committee. The Constitution (Declaration of Community) (Temporary Provisions) Bill was passed in July 2014 as temporary and palliative measure, pending a promised full-fledged reform of the electoral system. The proposed amendment would abolish the BLS altogether and replace it with a different system.
Opposition groups have called for the consolidation, rather than abolition, of BLS, and for the consideration of more recent census data rather than that of 1972.
One of the concerns with the abolition of BLS is that some communal/religious minorities may not be properly represented in the National Assembly in case people vote on ethnic lines. Even with the BLS in place, members of the Muslim and General Population community have historically been underrepresented in parliament and in cabinet. Some have therefore called for the consolidation, rather than abolition, of BLS. However, the Prime Minister has attempted to allay such fears by stating that the constitution guarantees fair and adequate representation of all components of Mauritian society such as specially drawn constituencies, unequal population size of constituencies and three-member constituencies. The majoritarian character of the elections has meant that these features have not been effective in ensuring sufficient communal representation. Mauritius’s approach could be contrasted with Singapore’s Group Representation Constituency Scheme which is less majoritarian and results in more direct representation of minority groups.
Under the proposal, the BLS would be replaced by a system requiring each political party to provide a list of a maximum of 24 candidates to be considered under the PR system and the list should not comprise more than two-thirds of persons of the same sex to ensure better gender representation. There is no similar requirement regarding communal representation. Moreover, the underlying rationale for the allocation of the ten additional seats will no more be along ethnic/religious lines but more geared towards approximating the majority of votes that a political party wins with the number of seats. Individuals elected through PR would not be allowed to cross the floor. The proposal retains the system of additional seats, which would be increased from a maximum of eight to a maximum of ten. Nevertheless, the selection of these members would not necessarily depend on communal affiliation.
The ruling coalition has the numbers to proceed with the electoral reform, if it could act cohesively.
The Leader of the Opposition highlighted the fact that it is a constitutional guarantee to ensure adequate and fair representation of all communities. While there is no fault with the system per se, its application has been flawed with the use of a census dating back to 1972 and not reflecting the current reality. The opposition has therefore called for the consideration of more recent census data. The BLS is indeed a guarantee of fair and adequate representation of minorities in Mauritius and simply abolishing it without being confident that the replacement system will achieve this aim could undermine political inclusiveness and social stability.
Concluding remarks: Lack of public and CSO participation
Although the proposed amendment has been made public and affects a fundamental element of democracy and political representation, the public are yet to be meaningfully engaged in the discussion on the electoral reform. Civil society organizations have also not taken a clear stand on the matter. It has to be unfortunately highlighted that it is not part of the Mauritian ‘culture’ for the people or CSOs to contest these issues. The level of popular activism towards electoral reform has been remarkably low. Some have argued that it is in fact only the citizens that have the power to decide on the type of electoral reform that they desire; so much so as political parties are tempted to recommend and push for reforms that will only suit their own political interests. In particular, despite the direct impact of the proposal on communal representation, organizations representing the interests of the various communities have not addressed the issue.
Under the constitution, constitutional amendments require the approval of three-quarters of all the members of parliament, without the need for approval in a popular referendum. The ruling coalition controls 51 of the 69 seats in the current parliament, which would allow it to proceed with the electoral reform. The extent to which members of the ruling coalition will cohesively vote according to party lines is not clear. Although the proposed reform concerning gender representation has inter-party support, it is possible that some members of the ruling party hailing from minority communities may not agree with the reforms abolishing BLS.
Amar Mahadew is the Head of the Department of Law at the University of Mauritius.