Why giving the diaspora the vote is an anti-democratic idea

5 novembre 2023, 20:55


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Why giving the diaspora the vote is an anti-democratic idea

The problem is that no one knows just how big the Mauritian diaspora worldwide is, nor for how many generations down the line should the vote be given.

Bruneau Laurette has resurrected an idea that has become a touchstone for many extraparliamentary parties and academics; granting the Mauritian diaspora the right to vote in general elections. But the real question is how has such an undemocratic idea become so fashionable?

Size matters

Bruneau Laurette, one of the leaders of One Moris, has submitted proposals to ‘improve’ the electoral process. One of them is resurrecting an old argument; commonwealth citizens vote in Mauritius, “while Mauritians living abroad and holding a Mauritian identity card or passport do not have the right to vote. Isn’t this discrimination against Mauritians?” In recent years, the idea of granting the vote to the Mauritian diaspora has been embraced with zeal by the extra-parliamentary opposition, some sections of the parliamentary opposition and civil society. The question is, how has such an anti-democratic idea been embraced so deeply?

Firstly, the comparison with commonwealth voters is a highly misleading one. While section 42 of the Constitution allows all commonwealth citizens living in Mauritius for more than two years the right to vote in Mauritian elections, in truth, there is no comparison of the impact these voters have compared to opening the electoral floodgates to the diaspora. In 2023, there were a mere 1,724 commonwealth citizens scattered across the 21 constituencies of Mauritius. The diaspora, on the other hand, has been fuelled by successive migration waves out of Mauritius in the 1960s and 1970s – one study estimated that 66,415 people had emigrated out of Mauritius between 1961 and 1985 -and in recent years by a steady flood of economic migrants going out of the country at the rate of nearly 2,000 each year. That’s according to official government statistics. The truth is that no one really knows just how large the Mauritian diaspora really is, with estimates ranging from anywhere between 225,000 and 500,000. There is just no rational comparison between the relatively tiny numbers of commonwealth voters registered to vote in Mauritian elections and a huge diaspora scattered across the globe.

Second, any proposal to extend the franchise to the diaspora would have to grapple with a more fundamental question; what is a diaspora and who qualifies to be in it? One problem with the proposals to give the diaspora the right to vote is that they do not specify whether this should be just given to first-generation Mauritian migrants abroad, or extended to their children and grandchildren as well. These are important distinctions because the answers could lead to an increase in the number of voters by an order of magnitude. Third, the Mauritian electoral system of electoral boundaries and threemember constituencies have been delicately crafted to ensure political representation for all communities in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious polity. The heart of the system is allowing somebody to vote only after registering in a particular constituency. So much so that the Sachs Commission in 2002 proposed that, “registration of voters should be compulsory, and that legislation should be adopted requiring all persons eligible for the vote to ensure that their names are on the current register”. While Mauritius does have some experience in accommodating voters falling outside the physical constituencies of Mauritius – such as the case for the nearly 300 voters in the OIDC-run Agalega who are included in constituency no.3 – accommodating an influx of a quarter of a million diaspora voters in multiple countries is another matter entirely. And there is no way that such a large number of voters can be added to any existing constituency. Given that there is little research about the size, let alone the ethnic make-up of the Mauritian diaspora, there is little chance that such a huge influx of outside voters can be included in the system without damaging the delicate ethnic balance within the Mauritian electoral system. Allowing the diaspora to vote would also hopelessly complicate an already complicated matter of electoral reform, which since Sachs’ report in 2002 has agreed on a mixed First-Past-the-Post and Proportional Representation system. Figuring out how the proportional representation side of the equation interacts with a huge number of diaspora voters is no easy task. Understandably, this is why every proposal for electoral reform from Sachs onwards has not included a proposition to give the diaspora the vote.

Different interests

The underlying assumption behind giving the diaspora the vote is that the interests of the diaspora living overseas and Mauritians living in the country are the same and that both want the same things. This is a weak argument at best. Very often, the interests of the diaspora and the Mauritian population are diametrically opposed.

Take the example of the ‘Chagossians’ living in the UK. That community in the UK was created following a 2002 decision by London to grant them UK passports, handing out 1,406 passports between 2002 and 2006 alone, mostly to Mauritiusbased ‘Chagossians’, allowing the emergence of a community in Crawley. A community that traces its origins from territory that is legally Mauritian and the bulk of the community decamping out of Mauritius to the UK. They are, strictly speaking, part of the wider Mauritian diaspora. But while the Mauritian state has long struggled to exercise its sovereignty over the Chagos islands, this part of Mauritian diaspora in the UK has opposed Mauritian sovereignty at every turn, backing London’s continued rule over the islands. Their interests have been to continue to back London in the hope of getting more of their relatives into the UK under expanded immigration rules and getting the UK government to pour greater resources into housing and employment support to them within the UK. This has put them in a direct path of confrontation with the Mauritian government and those ‘Chagossians’ – such as those organized by the CRG and led Olivier Bancoult – still in Mauritius and who identify as Mauritian and who have modified with standpoint in now seeking to return to a Mauritian Chagos as Mauritian citizens.

election 3.jpg (The demand for diaspora voting rights ignores just how fundamentally different the interests of Mauritians and some within the wider Mauritian diaspora - such as UK based Chagossians - really are.)

The divergences between the Mauritius-based CRG and the Mauritian state on one side and UK-based ‘Chagossians’ – part of the Mauritian diaspora – on the other highlight just how demands to grant the diaspora the vote elides such basic contradictions. The divergent interests can be as significant as a fight over sovereignty or as mundane as property prices. One of the problems plaguing Mauritius is how the property market has largely decoupled from the formal wage structure within the economy, making homeownership increasingly difficult for young Mauritians. One of the drivers of this is the diaspora buying up eventual retirement homes or secondary homes within Mauritius, driving up local property prices. In such a situation, the diaspora would push for keeping a liberalized property market while voters within Mauritius could turn to increasing curbs on home ownership by nonresidents to make housing more affordable.

This raises another thorny problem; one of the defining features in Mauritius is that elections are not so much about voting for party that you agree with, as much as punishing an incumbent government for its performance. Voters who bring in a government and who are directly affected by its policies then turn to an alternative. The problem with allowing the diaspora to vote is that essentially it is extending an opportunity to voters outside to choose a government whose policies will not affect them, but rather only those voters still living in Mauritius. Extending the vote to the diaspora might end up working against Mauritian voters themselves.

No safeguards

Having the diaspora vote might also end up hurting the quality of Mauritian elections and keeping them clean immeasurably more difficult. One big reason why Mauritian elections have remained clean so far is that the voting and counting process takes place under the gaze of the political parties contesting the elections. Under election regulations in force right now candidates from each political party has the right to appoint lorry agents to accompany ballot boxes being transported from each polling station to counting room, appointing up to two night-agents to guard ballot boxes being kept overnight at the counting centre before counting begins the next day, and each party and independent candidate being allowed to appoint two counting agents to oversee the manual counting in each counting room of the votes until the results are proclaimed. The diaspora being allowed to vote overseas at Mauritian high commissions and embassies would obviously make this degree of scrutiny of the election process by the political parties themselves impossible. Larger political parties would be able to afford to hire political agents in those countries to oversee the voting and counting process, but that would only work against smaller parties and drive the overall costs of fighting an election even higher.

Things would be no better for an already-overstretched Electoral Commissioner’s Office. Since an election involves an average of 12,000 election officials across the 21 constituencies of the country, since 1976 the practice has been to rely on civil servants seconded from other ministries – shortlisted by the ECO, approved by the ESC and then formally appointed by the head of the civil service - to conduct the election. With no permanent election staff, its easy to see how the election bureaucracy could be overwhelmed if asked to manage elections across multiple countries at the same time that could involve as much as a quarter of the total Mauritian population as new voters from the diaspora. A curious experiment in 2021 involving a ‘virtual election’ took place organized by a UK-based group Mauritian Global Diaspora. In reality an online poll, the ‘elections’ took place without any candidates, without any constituencies, no parties registering, no campaigning, no party agents overseeing the voting and the counting and no real mechanism to check who was clicking away.

The episode only highlighted just how confusing organizing an election within a diaspora could be.

election 1.jpg (Sections of the diaspora have long pushed for the right to vote in Mauritian elections, a demand that has been picked up by many extra-parliamentary parties in Mauritius too.)

The economic argument

The biggest problem with the idea of allowing the diaspora to vote is that it’s essentially an un-democratic one, effectively creating two classes of citizens. Democracy at its most basic is citizens contributing to the running of the state through their taxes and in return getting the vote to determine how the government spends those taxes. But extending the vote to the diaspora would mean that although voters in Mauritius are still obliged to pay taxes and vote, the system would create an all-new category of voter: those who do not pay any taxes to the state but still get a vote to determine how the taxes that those in Mauritius have paid get spent. Put simply, an inversion of the famous US independence slogan: representation without taxation.

This is where the comparison with commonwealth voters really starts to fall apart; not only is the scale of the problem different, but unlike the diaspora which pays no taxes locally, commonwealth voters do and contribute economically. In fact despite successive governments setting up different schemes to attract money and skills from the diaspora back to Mauritius such as the circular migration scheme in 2004 or the diaspora scheme started by the Economic Development Board (EBD) in 2015, these have largely failed. By 2018, the EDB’s scheme has attracted only 100 members of the diaspora out of an estimated 225,000.

This is where Mauritius is different from other neighbouring states such as the Comoros. This year, it changed its election rules to allow its 300,000-strong diaspora (mostly concentrated in France) to vote in its elections. Comoros could hardly ignore its diaspora politically given how economically important it is to the economy: between 2017 and 2021 remittances sent in by its diaspora grew by an average annual rate of 15 percent until remittances sent in by the Comorian diaspora now make up 16 per cent of its GDP. The contrast with Mauritius could not be starker; remittances from the Mauritian diaspora is negligible at less than 1 per cent of GDP and even then most of it is geared not towards investment but private consumption. Mauritius is currently suffering from a brain drain problem, with more of its young people fleeing abroad (1,850 each year, according to official government estimates) to swell the ranks of its diaspora, rather than the diaspora bringing the skills home.

However, even in the Comoros, its constitutional court declined to enforce its diaspora’s right to vote given the sheer logistical problems that the plan entailed for a small country in the Indian Ocean. The trouble in Mauritius is that these logistical problems are compounded by a lack of real logic in giving its own diaspora the vote. While it may sound good on paper, at its core it remains an anti-democratic idea that’s best left alone.