By Sameer Sharma
Aristotle’s favoured form of government was the rule by the best over the rest, an aristocracy based on merit rather than blood. The philosopher even thought that a good monarchy was better than a democracy. Aristotle’s key objection to democracy was that it undermined the rule of law. To say that a state is democratic is to say little about how it is actually governed. A functioning state requires that everything is governed by laws. Without this there is nothing to stop those who hold the most power doing what they want and tyrannising everyone else.
Coming back to more recent times, back in the mid-1990s, many thought that new democracies would invariably turn liberal over time. It is today generally accepted by political scientists that democracies may follow different paths and may turn up as liberal or illiberal. What we call liberal democracies have traditionally accepted the need for the rule of law and other forms of checks and balances to stand between the expression of popular will and its implementation. In the contemporary west the rule of law is a core principle that stands alongside representative government by popular election. Checks and balances come in the form of a well oiled constitution with separation of powers, timely dispensation of justice by independent courts, a free press, term limits on the powerful in some countries and strong albeit independent institutions.
In simple terms, liberalism is about the norms and practices that shape political life. A properly liberal state is one in which individual rights are paramount. It protects the individual not only against the abuses of a tyrant but also against the abuses of democratic majorities. In 1997, Fareed Zakaria’s essay in the journal Foreign Affairs argued that illiberal democracies were on the rise. This rise, he argued, then assumes a familiar form: more corruption, greater restrictions on assembly and speech, constraints on the press, retribution against political opponents, oppression of minorities. All of these things are bad, but they are not necessarily undemocratic. Putin’s Russia is spangled with repressive and illiberal policies, and yet Putin is quite popular among Russians. He is, like many near tyrants, a populist.
The illiberal trend Zakaria noted in 1997 has, if anything, accelerated. The Western world is not becoming less democratic, but it is becoming less liberal. The degree of “illiberalism” seems to depend on the quality of checks and balances, namely on the quality of institutions and the degree of concentration of power.
When it comes to Mauritius, institutions have increasingly been weakened and politicized over the past decade. Ethnic belonging and communal undertones push ever lasting party strongmen forward. These leaders who claim to be star representatives of nouban more often than not use ethnic belonging as a key tool in the power game. In the current set up, the constitution provides quasi monarchic powers to the Prime Minister of the day. Indeed in such a system it pays to be loyal to the quasi monarch of the day, which explains the regular worship of the leader on television and in the press by the usual suspects.
<blockquote>Institutions should be increasingly populated with technocrats rather than yesmen.</blockquote>
Louis the Fourteenth built the Chateau of Versailles so that he could get nobles closer to him and under his control. Loyalty and praise to the Sun King was more often than not rewarded by being provided with better rooms, privileges and greater proximity. Over time, nobles would quarrel among themselves for the honour of seeing the Sun King relieve himself on his throne like toilet during la levée du Roi.
Institutions in Mauritius have gradually been politicised and weakened, meritocracy has increasingly become a secondary reflex at best, parts of the press is increasingly viewed as being with the government or against it while district councils and municipalities remain largely controlled by the central government. From increasingly repressive laws which limit the freedom of expression to the time it takes to obtain justice from the still independent courts, Mauritian democracy is as illiberal as ever.
Independence and accountability
While many including those in the Opposition and in civil society have criticized the political system in recent times, few have proposed solutions which would take the ground realities of Mauritius into account and that would do away with the core problem, that is, the concentration of power into the hands of the Leader of the day. Mauritius also does not need a system where an unpopular monarch is replaced by another strongman with quasi absolute powers.
What Mauritius actually needs is a leader who is willing to promise that he or she will reduce his own powers and share it. For example, this could mean greater powers and independence to district councils and municipalities that would also be able to raise local taxes and manage their affairs. It would mean greater participative democracy at the local level, which could bring more proportional representation of different groups at the local level at least for a start.
Institutions like the central bank should be made much more independent than they have become today while they should be made accountable to Parliament. These institutions should be increasingly populated with technocrats rather than yesmen. A former Governor of the Bank of Mauritius, for example, did not even have a university degree in recent times, for such things as university degrees no longer matter when compared to loyalty, and sadly it never created any alarm.
In order to prevent demagogues from selling dreams to the masses, there should be an independent budget office which would report to Parliament and would conduct independent impact studies on the consequences of electoral promises of major parties and of all budgets. Electoral financial reforms, when combined with the de-centralization of power, would also help constrain the power of powerful lobby groups and of corporatism. It is easier to target the one than the many. The rights of the press should also be more formally guaranteed by an amended constitution.
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Rather than defending the current Leader or focusing on promoting the next one, whatever remains of the Mauritian intelligentsia should be focusing on ways to convince the masses on the need to limit the ability of future leaders to have such a strong influence over the state and on everyone’s lives.