The project of Second Republic issued on the 19th of September 2014 as part of the “Electoral Alliance Agreement between the MLP and the MMM” draws its inspiration from a semi-presidential regime “à la française”. However, as we will see, it gives rise to a selective interpretation of such a system, focusing on measures that can increase the powers of the President, at the expense of mechanisms, which guarantee the balance of powers.
One major change proposed by the MLP-MMM project, which would bring the Mauritian political system closer to the French one, lies in the introduction of the universal suffrage to designate the President of the Republic.
The election of the Head of State would result in dissociation between the Executive power and the Legislative power. Under the French Constitution, the dissociation is obtained by the fact that, firstly, the two bodies are designated separately (both the Parliament and the President are elected by universal suffrage every five years) and secondly, no member of the Executive (including the Prime Minister) can be at the same time a Member of Parliament.
In the existing Mauritian system, the Executive and the Legislative are not dissociated. The President, who is elected by the Assembly (“on a motion made by the Prime Minister” says the Constitution), will, in turn, appoint the Prime Minister. The appointed Prime Minister must be the member of the Assembly who appears to be “best able to command the support of the majority of the members of the Assembly” and the ministers shall be chosen among the elected MPs too (except for the Attorney General).
Confusion arises here in the project of Second Republic drafted by the MLP-MMM alliance. According to their agreement, the elected President shall still appoint the Prime Minister, as it is also the case in France. But will the newly designated Prime Minister and his ministers still be sitting in Parliament? This is not specified in the MLP-MMM agreement.
Yet, the fact that the Executive is external to Parliament is an essential condition for the balance of powers under a semi-presidential system “à la française”, because it relies upon the cornerstone principle that even though the Executive is designated separately from the Parliamentary (universal suffrage), the Government still remains politically accountable to the National Assembly. The Parliament exerts a control over the government policy, like in Mauritius, through Parliamentary Questions, but also by means of inquiry commissions, which have the power to investigate the conduct of public bodies.
Being accountable to the Parliament also means for the Executive to be accountable to its own majority in the National Assembly. The underlying principle in the French “semi-presidential” system is that the legitimacy of the Executive does not stem only from the election of the President by universal suffrage, but also from the fact that his Government presents and enforces a programme that receives the consent and support of the majority in Parliament. The majority party in Parliament plays the decisive role as a watchdog to make sure that the Executive is enforcing the policy programme for which it has been designated by the electorate.
This is one reason why, even though the French President appoints the Prime Minister, he is not formally entitled to revoke him. The Prime Minister is supported by the parliamentary majority from whom he is the emanation. In case the majority in Parliament shifts at the next legislative elections, the President will have to appoint a new Prime Minister coming from the same party as the new majority (what was called “cohabitation”). But in the project of Second Republic drafted by the MLP-MMM alliance for Mauritius, the President may revoke the Prime Minister whenever he wants. He may also “preside the Cabinet of Ministers whenever he so decides” and “may address Parliament whenever he so decides”. And he can dissolve Parliament, apparently when he pleases too.
In the French semi-presidential system, the President does not choose “whenever” he is willing or not to preside the cabinet, this is full responsibility and duty every week. Such emphasis on the will, rather than on the role of the President, is certainly not made to provide a “better check and balance between the powers, role and responsibilities of the President and those of the Prime Minister”, as claimed in the agreement.
Moreover, in a semi-presidential system “à la française”, even though the President is given extended powers, including the one to dissolve the Parliament, he cannot do as he pleases. Overarching institutions were set up by the 1958 Constitution in order to control the Executive and the Legislative and prevent abuses of power. A“Conseil Constitutionnel” has the duty to check the constitutionality of legislations passed by the Parliament and a “Cour de Justice de la République” can put on trial members of the Executive who have infringed the law or the duty of their charge.
The bone of contention in the project of Second Republic proposed by the MLP-MMM agreement lies not so much in the shift of the Executive power to the hands of the President as on the fact that this shift is obviously not accompanied by the necessary safeguards. Where the MLP-MMM agreement claims to “create better checks and balances”, it actually blurs the limits and distribution of roles. It retains from the French semi-presidential system mainly the elements that ensure a predominance of the President, failing to make provision for safeguarding institutions and mechanisms to ensure the balance of powers between the two heads of the Executive on the one hand, and between the Executive and the Legislative on the other hand.
The shift of executive power to the hands of the President under the project of Second Republic could be beneficial to the Mauritian democracy under the condition that the Parliament is then given more chances to play its role as an effective counter-power to the Executive. Is that possible in a Mauritian political culture of prevailing nepotism, lack of consideration for public policies and blind deference to the leader?