The right to vote has to be judiciously exercised to bring about true democracy and a salubrious sea change in the political landscape
— By Mrinal Roy
The young men and women who registered to be candidates in the by-election in Belle-Rose-Quatre Bornes have brought such an immense breath of fresh air to the abysmal level of politics in the country. They candidly and confidently shared their views on their participation in the by-election. They bring intellect, enthusiasm and the innovative approach of a digitally savvy new generation to the common national goal of establishing a far better, fairer and environment friendly socio-economic order. Their views reflect honesty, a rooted belief in a new ethos and a determination to cut loose from the sordid politicking which has been the hallmark of politics for decades in the country.
They spoke of respecting their opponents, fair campaigning, of connecting with the people to seek and take stock of their views and aspirations through interaction with the inhabitants of the constituency. They spoke of respect for the inhabitants of the constituency, of serving the people and assuring their improved welfare and of uplifting the standard of political ethics. These opening thoughts and ideas stem from common values and ideals which naturally unite and drive the young of the country. They are devoid of any guile.
This contrasts sharply with the prevailing political culture and ethics in the country so deeply rooted on shenanigans of every kind and endless changing political alliances contracted solely for the sake of wresting or keeping power by all means. The appalling political situation is also evidenced by the overbearing hegemony of cronies, party apparatchiks and the coterie. There is neither a guiding ideology nor any cogent intent to translate the clamour of the multitude for a better, merit based and inclusive socio-economic and political order into reality.
To crown it all, every week seems to bring its load of sordid news relating to local politicians. Over the past months the nation has repeatedly been jolted by the condemnable actions by Members of the government including repugnant behaviour and vile remarks of Ministers, a Private Parliamentary Secretary and MPs against women. Various Ministers are being investigated for diverse allegations. The country has now also learnt that MPs elected to serve the people are also quite finicky about pecuniary matters and have formally expressed their dissatisfaction at the per diem allocated to them as well as the choice of countries they have been sent on official mission. All this distasteful array of incidents are aeons distanced from the contract of selfless service to the people entered by the elected MPs with the electorate at the time of elections. There is systemic breach of trust.
To make things worse, the main political parties subserviently obey the diktats of omnipotent leaders trapped in the time warp and mindset of a bygone era. They have long outlived their life cycles. Such a political system with its repeatedly disavowed leaders is anathema to the multitude. They cannot represent the future. This abject parody of democracy is not sustainable and cannot go on.
There are also many legitimate questions being raised about the model of economic liberalism being blithely championed by government. How is the country’s substantial jump up the World Bank ease of doing business ranking helping mainstream Mauritius to meet its existential needs or addressing and resolving the problem of gainful employment of the plethora of qualified young, when the thrust of private sector investment is in real estate development? How can it reduce inequality, create a level playing field for business and merit based employment and significantly improve the standard of living and quality of life of people? The government seems desperate to show that its policies are producing results despite deteriorating economic fundamentals and faltering growth rates. It seems to go to great lengths for this. The national TV has already been press-ganged into daily service.
The repute and standing of Mauritius as a financial services centre should be rigorously preserved at all costs. The recently leaked ‘Paradise Papers’ have pointed the finger at the Mauritian jurisdiction in a number of cases. ‘When in doubt don’t’ should be the sacrosanct guiding principle. The recent government decision to allow a company owned by Alvaro Sobrinho to acquire 12 upmarket villas for some Rs 355 million in a Balaclava Residential Property scheme venture subject to validation of the sources of funds, despite the controversies surrounding permits granted to him earlier in the year is therefore quite flabbergasting. This decision is also in the teeth of the advice of caution recommended in the Reputational Review Report of Kroll and the advice of a private sector Senior Counsel not to allow the investment in order to safeguard the standing of our jurisdiction. The repute of our jurisdiction has no price.
Our democracy is therefore at a crossroads. A democracy can only be vibrant and a true mirror of popular will when voters judiciously exercise their right to vote and when those elected to represent them in the National Assembly always put the interests of people and the country above those of party leaders or the party. Democracy is subverted when elected MPs subordinate the interests of the people who elected them to those of the party leader or the party. Party discipline cannot mean putting party before country and people.
The challenges facing the young are thus formidable. Those joining the main political parties run the risk of seeing their altruism unceremoniously trampled upon and being swiftly press-ganged to toe the line and rigorously follow the party diktats against the country’s or the public interest. The zeal to contest the established order and rock the boat within the straight jacket of the existing party structures can be very short-lived. The perks and trappings of power can quickly overcome the qualms of the less principled. There are so many instances of dissidents being peremptorily ground by the party machinery into submission or forced to leave.
Against such an appalling backdrop, the vote of the electorate should be a potent vector of profound political change. The right to vote is a sacrosanct right which has been arduously won after epic battles. Every citizen therefore has a moral obligation to value and exercise the fundamental right to vote. However, the right to vote has to be judiciously exercised to bring about true democracy in the country and a salubrious sea change in the political landscape. This is not the time for abstention.
No to abstention
The future therefore belongs to the talented young and their refreshing dynamism and ambitious outlook on the prospects of the country. The talented young who are fighting the by-election will be presenting their vision of a significantly more equal, inclusive and better Mauritius and share their ambition and plan for a more prosperous country. The choice facing the electorate in Belle Rose-Quatre Bornes is fundamentally quite simple. It should be an emphatic vote to end the stifling stranglehold of the main political parties over our democracy. It should be a vote to contest their inept policies and to stop endless politicking in the country.
An enlightened vote in favour of the most deserving and talented young candidate should above all herald a first step towards a larger process of fundamental democratic change and a paradigm shift in political ethics in the country. The onus will therefore squarely be on the electorate to choose at the next polls a young talented team entrusted to run the country and realize our most ambitious objectives as a nation for the inclusive benefit of all.
A new dynamic and talented young team will through their intellect, modern outlook on the country and innovative initiatives certainly significantly improve the quality of government actions by drawing on the best talents and professional competence for the betterment of the country and the improvement of the standards of living of the people. It is thus high time to let the young prevail.
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Assuring the dignity of the National Assembly
In the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy, the Speaker is a key constitutional post. In the UK House of Commons, the Speaker is an elected MP who is elected to the post by the Members of Parliament. In Mauritius, the Constitution provides that the Speaker may or may not be an elected Member of the National Assembly. The Speaker who is the highest authority of the National Assembly presides over its deliberations, preserves order and decorum, decides on the order MPs can intervene in the Assembly and makes rulings about Assembly procedures.
However, the Speaker’s most important attribute is that he or she must remain politically impartial and strictly non-partisan at all times when administering the affairs of the National Assembly. In the UK, the Speaker renounces all affiliation with his or her former political party when taking office as well as when leaving the office. This impartiality must be perceived in practice and objectively recognised by MPs from both government and opposition benches for the Speaker to earn respect as is the case for John Bercow, the popular Speaker of the House of Commons in office since June 2009. This impartiality is central to the smooth conduct of the affairs of the National Assembly.
The Speaker must also master the intricacies and subtleties of the law, privileges, proceedings and usage of Erskine May’s code of parliamentary practice to aptly interpret the Standing Orders. The Speaker must ensure that the standing Orders and rules of the National Assembly are adhered to and assure that the dignity of the Assembly is preserved at all times. It is a job which requires special skills, a mastery over parliamentary practice and procedures and above all an unwavering posture of impartiality as well as keeping the right balance between firmness and fairness.
It must be said that the first Mauritian Speaker of the then Legislative Assembly, Sir Harilal Vaghjee established a high benchmark for the conduct of the affairs of the Assembly during his 19-year tenure of office from 1960-1979. It has provided guidance and a pathway for subsequent Speakers. It has however been a difficult act to follow.
During the mandate of the government, there have regrettably been quite a few incidents opposing MPs and the leaders of the Opposition parties and the Speaker, some of them resulting in expulsions. The current session of the Assembly has already been marred by several unruly incidents which are hardly in keeping with the fair democratic spirit which must prevail in the National Assembly. It is therefore imperative that all parties in the National Assembly ensure that impartiality prevails at all times to bring much needed serenity to the deliberations of the National Assembly. This is the only way to ensure that the National Assembly remains a forum of democratic debate, transparency and accountability in respect of the affairs of the State.
* Published in print edition on 10 November 2017