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Carnival Atmosphere As Thousands End Mauritian Polls
by Hugh Mccullum and Jean Chimhandamba

Port Louis, 10 September 2000

The streets of this small city were gridlocked on what is normally a quiet day as 10s of thousands turned out for closing rallies for tomorrow's parliamentary election in an atmosphere more like a carnival than a serious election campaign.

It was a family day, starting about 9 a.m. in Quatre Borne, a traditional Labour Party stronghold, and moved back and forth across to Port Louis, the capital about 15 km away with huge colourful, blaring motorcades of every kind of moveable vehicle and streams of people on foot. The brilliant red and blue of the Labour-PMXD alliance worn by the supporters of Prime Minister Nevin Ramgoolam contrasted vividly with the violet and white of the MMM/MSM alliance.

If numbers count, the second alliance, or opposition, the Militant Mauritian Movement and the Militant Socialist Movement of former prime minister Sir Anerood Jugnauth and long-time opposition leader Paul Berenger probably won. Police estimated that between 60,000 and 70,000 Mauritians crowded the Champs de Mars race course while some 35,000 to 40,000 jammed a huge bus terminus in Quatre Borne to hear the Labour prime minister and his junior partner, Charles Duval defend their record.

The speeches, delivered in the staccato Creole dialect most commonly used among Mauritians despite English being its official language, were just a background noise to roaring crowds carrying banners, flags, posters and plastic ribbons which were waved and punched into the air everytime a politician raised his voice.

It was hot in Port Louis and Quatre Borne, hawkers peddled food and drink and families brought the kids for a fun outing. Costumes were worn in every shape and size, combining all the colours of all the parties in the alliances turned the outdoor venues into a kaleidescope of moving shades and hues.

Thousands of unarmed police efficiently tried to control traffic as crowded vehicles moved across the hilly capital city of this volcanic island. The rallies, originally planned to be held about an hour apart overlapped until mid-afternoon as motorcades raced in different directions waving flags from buses supporting one or the other alliance.

At one point just outside the downtown parliament buildings, chaos was added to confusion as the small but noisy Hizbullah Party drove a wedge of cars and motorcycles, bedecked with people wearing and waving the solid green colour of Islam, through traffic trying to get to the racetrack.

Police simply let it happen. Looking smart in their blue uniforms with checkered hats, the police were extremely professional, controlling the crowds and massive traffic jams with good-natured tolerance. The remarkable lack of tension despite the strident accusations of one side accusing the other of bribery, incompetence, laziness, disloyalty and a host of other political and non-political sins reflects the tolerance among the island's 1.2 million people of widely varied ethnic backgrounds and religions.

Tomorrow the polls open early, break for lunch - a custom rarely heard of in democratic elections - and close at 6p.m. Counting is on Tuesday and results of the 62 candidates will be known by mid-afternoon. Three MPs are elected from each of 20 constituencies and two from the offshore island of Rodrigues. Voters must select three names on their ballot (more or less make it a spoiled ballot) from a wide variety of parties but the two alliances will most certainly come out as winner, and form the government or loser and form the opposition.

After the 62 MPs are announced the independent electorion commissioner and his Supervisory Electoral Commission go into the complex statistical analysis which will choose eight "best losers" to balance ethnic and political minorities. The maximum of eight, however, cannot unbalance the results of the voting. The final makeup of the 70-member House of Assembly consists of 62 elected MPS and eight "best losers." The British first-past-the-post system is in place.

However, for today it was all festivity and frolic as hard as the politicians tried to demonize each other. Monday, the voters will have their say and if enthusiasm for democratic politics, however complicated, continues the turnout will be large from among some 790.000 registered voters over the age of 18 who face 535 candidates for election. (SARDC)

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