2019 General election in Mauritius: Is our democracy in danger?

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Counting of ballots at Quatre-Bornes on the 8th November 2019.

As we usher into 2020, it is important to reflect on one of the key moments of 2019 - the holding of the country’s 11th post independent general elections. It is fair to say (without being accused of being unpatriotic, hysteric or biased) that the recently held election has left many citizens with a number of worrying unanswered questions as to the manner in which this election was organised, managed and announced.

One would expect that a country that achieved its independence through the ballot, classified as a full democracy (EIU 2018) and holding its 11th post independent election would ensure that the election process and results would be endorsed by all stakeholders as being ‘free and fair’. Although, I believe that the ‘free and fair’ label is outdated and there is a growing academic literature that is supportive of this. Instead there is the need to speak about how competitive elections are and whether the integrity of an election process was not compromised. In fact, as one reflects on the recently held election the latter comes to our mind.

Damage to the Mauritian Democratic model: a number of unexplained dark spots

Once the election results were announced, the following days and then weeks saw a climate of opacity, confusion and general lack of communication where a succession of what can be termed as irregularities cropped up. From voters off the registration roll, marked ballots found lying outside counting centres, inexperienced electoral staff, unexplained presence of computers in counting centres without the prior approval of the other political parties and others. Speaking to a colleague about how the ‘good student’ of African democracy had gone astray the latter mentioned that the various irregularities were what can be referred to as ‘chaos management’. In fact ‘chaos management’ is an aggregation of a number of micro disturbances that can have an impact on the integrity of a process and in this particular case the holding of elections. Therefore the questions that we should ask ourselves as citizens of this country: why did this happen? and what does it mean for the island’s democratic tradition?

Elections must be as inclusive as possible: Universal suffrage is key to democracy and the ‘right to vote’ is enshrined in the Mauritian Constitution. However, we are aware that no system is perfect and human error is inevitable. The fact that around 7,000 voters were unable to cast their vote (this is only those who officially complained) as their names were not featured on the voters’ registration roll is a matter of concern. Certain people have tried to minimise or trivialise the matter by mentioning that this represents less than 1% of the voting population. There have also been attempts to ‘blame’ the non registered voters for not being sufficiently attentive and proactive to ensure that their names were on the registration during and after the Electoral Commission canvassers’ visit. As mentioned earlier, no system is fail proof, however what needs to be revealed is if previously held elections had similar number of voters who were not registered? If not, why was this general election an exception?

Additional registration of electors for general elections should take place one month before polling day. Potential electors would be motivated by the upcoming electoral campaign. Recently, at the British general elections of 12 December 2019 registration of new electors took place until the 25th of November. That was a fully democratic exercise where all parties are involved in the process. Mauritius should change its archaic registration procedure to meet the needs of a modern age where communication between all stakeholders is key.

Marked ballots outside counting centres: Never in the history of elections held in Mauritius has such a situation ever occurred. The integrity of an election to a great extent depends on the fact that the security chain from the printing, distribution, use and counting of ballots is not compromised. How is it that three marked ballots were straying outside the counting centres weeks after the elections were held? We were told that the matter was reported to the police as the latter is a criminal case and matters stay as such.

“Across the world, domestic observers and other civic groups are being trained to use this new observation and monitoring tool (Parallel Vote Tabulations).”

Snap election: Mauritius follows the Westminster parliamentary system and according to Article 57 of the Constitution - “the President, acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister, may at any time prorogue or dissolve Parliament”. According to a number of observers, this gives undue power to the Prime Minister to decide when to dissolve Parliament and in the process to call for elections. This situation was further exacerbated by the decision to hold the elections within the minimum time frame allowed by the Constitution - 30 days. A number of decisions were taken that should have raised red flags - announcing the dissolution of Parliament on a Sunday afternoon and fixing the date of the poll on the 7 November in the midst of the national School Certificate and Higher School Certificate exams which required alternative voting centres and election staff to be identified and secured within a very short time frame. Here again the golden rule to be exercised when organising and running elections is to ensure that all the necessary steps are taken not to compromise the integrity of an election. In one constituency the Electoral Commission Office was short of 2000 officials for conducting the elections.

By whom were they replaced? Coming back to the Prime Minister’s ‘prerogative’ when to dissolve Parliament one should be inspired to follow best practices. The UK saw the enactment of the ‘Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011’ which sets in legislation a default fixed election date for general elections.

Incumbency overdrive: An incumbent government usually has access to the state machinery and in certain occasions uses it to its advantage. In principle once parliament is dissolved and elections are announced - the incumbent government becomes a caretaker government which by definition should perform only the basic duties and functions of the country until the next government is elected and sworn in. One should note that all previous incumbent governments have to a certain extent used the ‘privileges’ of incumbency, however during the last electoral campaign one witnessed a serious overdrive! Electoral announcements concerning the rise in old age pension, free use of the Metro Express (once the latter would be operational) to CEOs and Chairs of parastatal bodies getting endorsement as candidates - the list is long. However, incumbency was most visible in the manner in which the MBC was weaponised to become the propaganda machine of the incumbent coalition parties. Matters were so bad that a complaint was made to the Electoral Supervisory Commission concerning “unfair treatment by the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation in the context of its reporting on the General Elections 2019”. Despite the Electoral Supervisory Commission through a public communiqué mentioning that there ‘is substance in the complaints’, this did not deter the MBC from continuing to please its master of the day!

The Power of the Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs)

Independent, credible and effective electoral bodies are key to delivering clean and fair elections.

The position and composition of the Electoral Commissioner’s Office (ECO), the Electoral Supervisory Commission (ESC) and the Electoral Boundaries Commission (EBC) are enshrined in the Constitution. In fact, the body that directly deals with the supervision of elections is the ESC. As mentioned earlier, the 2019 general elections were the 11th since independence. The ECO and ESC have usually received kudos continentally, regionally and nationally for the manner in which elections have been organised and managed. However, it is interesting to note that the Afrobarometer Survey for Mauritius highlighted the growing distrust among Mauritians in the Electoral Commission Office. In 2012, 78% of Mauritian respondents said that they ‘somewhat / a lot trusted the Electoral Commission Office’. This dropped to 49% in 2017. This drop should be contextualised as all other key institutions such as the executive, the legislature, the judiciary, law and order witnessed a sharp dip in trust.

One of the key concerns with the EMBs in Mauritius is their lack of power of enforcement. Among the terms of reference of the Sachs Commission was to “review the role of the Electoral Supervisory Commission and make recommendations on how it can be strengthened and its responsibilities extended to uphold the democratic fundamentals of the Mauritian society in particular to ensure really free and fair elections”. Sachs made a number of interesting recommendations such as “draft a comprehensive electoral Code of Conduct with statutory force”, the merger of the ESC and EBC into a single body with a fulltime Chairperson and a full-time administration officer and premises of its own and the “once Parliament has been dissolved the Electoral Supervisory Commission shall set the date for the election”. Unfortunately, none of these recommendations was implemented except the electoral Code of Conduct that remains voluntary and lacks enforcement capacity. Therefore, it is imperative that the necessary commitment be made to give the proper muscle to the ESC to enforce the principles of ensuring fair, competitive and clean elections.

Use of Technology

Technology ushered in the digital revolution which was hailed as the great democratising force - making transparent what was opaque and making accessible what was inaccessible. However, in more recent times the growing use of technology has rendered the electoral process increasingly vulnerable to digital manipulation. Cheeseman and Klass (2018) in their book ‘How to rig an election’ mention how the administration of elections is coming under threat “from voter registration databases to the tallying process”. In the case of 2019 election, mention of computer terminals in the counting rooms surfaced. Unfortunately, till date there has been no official communication from the ECO as to whether computer terminals were used and for what purpose. One should note that the use of any form of technology (especially for election related purposes) should be done in consultation with all the relevant stakeholders prior to the holding of elections. If the principal aim was to ensure efficiency in the counting process then the counting, tallying and recording of votes should have been done on paper form and at the same time the relevant returning officers should have entered the scores into a digital platform that automatically adds them to a live stream that can be viewed online. Anything done behind closed doors dents the credibility and integrity of an election and fires speculation.

Observation and Monitoring

Mauritius unlike many countries in Africa does not have a tradition of domestic observers for its elections. In 2005, the Representation of People’s Act (1958) was amended to allow any international and regional organisation to deploy election observers to Mauritius. Till date, Mauritius has had four of its elections monitored and endorsed by Electoral Observation Missions (EOMs). There is a growing literature that is questioning the methodology as well as the utility of such exercises. Some of them are believed to operate at the pleasure of host governments, others are flown in a few days ahead of the actual poll whilst most of them are limited by their terms of references - merely observe and monitor.

In the case of elections in Mauritius, political candidates have their own cohort of agents that observe and monitor the voting, transfer of ballot boxes and the counting process. The question that we should ask - is whether they are fully versed and trained to be attentive that at no moment the electoral chain is not compromised? If not it might be useful for political parties to invest in such training. Another useful method that is gaining ascendency in the toolbox of observation and monitoring is the Parallel Vote Tabulations (PVT). PVT involves observation of the administration of the election, the process of voting and counting of ballots at the polling stations, collection of official polling station results and independent tabulation of these results, parallel to election authorities. Across the world and in Africa, domestic observers and other civic groups are being trained to use this new observation and monitoring tool. Its value and impact has been quite gratifying as not only does it empower citizens to be active participants during elections (beyond simply voting) but it has also enhanced the quality of elections.

The holding of credible and clean elections needs constant commitment from all the relevant stakeholders - EMBs, political parties, candidates, citizens, the incumbent government and key institutions to ensure that the necessary ecosystem is in place. Judging from the issues that were highlighted above, the 2019 general election suffered from a number of gaps / manquements. In the weeks and months ahead let us hope that the Court hearings of the various petitions lined up by the Opposition will help shed further light and put an end to the grave doubts gripping our Parliamentary tradition vested to us by the founding fathers of independent Mauritius in 1968.

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