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Mauritius Elections Reflect Democratic Ideal
by Hugh McCullum

Port Louis, 7 September 2000

One of the top lawyers in Mauritius leaned across the table and said, with only a hint of sarcasm, "if human rights and democratic codes didn't demand it, there wouldn't be much reason for elections in Mauritius."

No advocate of one-party rule, military dictatorships or tainted democracies, Vidon Boolell, 55, was simply stating that this island nation with political ties to Africa has reached a state in its political history where its 1.2 million people are competently and well-governed, economically progressive, racially tolerant and would not allow that the change. Indeed, the country does not even have an army, one of the few such nations in the world. And its various regulatory commissions and the judiciary are very powerful and independent.

That is not, the former justice of the supreme court, university lecturer, legal consultant and well-connected analyst, to say that Mauritians are passive or bored about their sixth parliamentary election which will take place next Monday.

"Politics is the third biggest game in town," he says, "after rumour-mongering and football."

These idyllic islands 2000km off the African coast, with their thriving economy, ethnic peace and religious tolerance are closely tied to Africa through their membership in the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC).

"But," says Manda Boolell, a well-known journalist and broadcaster, "we don't know Africa well, we are too far away so our ties are mainly political whereas culturally, we tend to look towards Asia and Europe, especially France."

Mauritius, however, is no stranger to the colonialism that has ravaged most of Africa. First the Dutch - the 2000 sq km island gets its name from Prince Maurice of Nassau, a Dutch nobleman -- then the French and finally the British used the volcanic island with its rich earth for vast sugar cane plantations, cultivated first by African slaves, mainly from what is now Mozambique and later indentured labourers from India. Today's descendents of the slaves are the Creole speakers.

With the abolition of slavery, the African tie was broken and by the end of the 19th century the population was predominantly of Indian origin. But the French influence lasted and most people use French in every day conversation, although English remains the official language. Mauritius belong to the Commonwealth, La Francophonie, the OAU and SADC but remains very much its own nation with a unique and rich political system which carries out its democratic responsibilities essentially to enhance its flourishing economy and varied cultural and religious history.

Boollel, pressed to define the issues rather than the personalities in this election where more 700,000 eligible voters will choose a Parliament of 62 members led by a prime minister (the ceremonial president is chosen by the House of Assembly) as head of government who will come from the winning party or alliance, shrugged in typically gallic fashion:
"Well, there is a bit more unemployment, but at two percent most countries would happy with that. There is some political corruption but nothing like what takes place in the private sector and the government has set up an independent Economic Crime Office which recently exposed two cabinet ministers, so that might be a token issue. The economy could get better I suppose but at an per capita average of US$3,500-a-year and tourism, textiles and sugar bringing plenty of dollars, our new area of growth, which also affects SADC, are financial services. Sorry," another shrug, "the only issues that stir us to attend huge rallies are the personalities and their personal political ambitions."

Despite this dismissive lack of issues, Manda Boollel deplores the lack of gender concerns in Mauritian politics. The Labour Party alliance has eight women candidates and the opposition alliance has four. "Twelve seats out of 60 is very disappointing." In the last cabinet there were three women among 23 ministers.

To the personalities, alliances and forecasts then:
"Alliance politics are what it is all about. Forget the 20 or 30 parties listed on the ballot, they're only there because they get free television time. It boils down - and has since 1982 - to the Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM) and its recent ally the Mauritian Socialist Movement (MSM) on the one side and the recent Labour alliance with the Mauritian Social Democratic Party of Xavier-Luc Duval which now calls itself PMXD."

Boollel snaps his fingers one at a time. "Remember, at some time in past 15 years or so they have all been in one form of alliance with each other and all split."

In 1982 Sir Anerood Jugnauth's MSM party won all 60 seats with the MMM led by Paul Berenger. In nine months MMM split away and Berenger formed the parliamentary opposition. In 1983 Jugnauth, who is now 71, won another election in alliance with PMXD. He joined up with Berenger again in 1991 and this sort of jockeying continued until 1995 when Jugnauth was defeated after 13 years as prime minister.

He effected many changes in the political profile of the country, chief of which was declaring Mauritius a republic within the Commonwealth in 1992.

"His real accomplishment for him personally, though, was to deny his sometime ally, friend, enemy and deputy, Berenger from his burning ambition to become prime minister," Boollel says.

When the grand old man went down to his crushing defeat, it was Berenger and his MMM who made an alliance with Labour, led by Navin Ramgoolam. Jugnauth lost all 60 elected seats, including his own. But Berenger returned again to Parliament as deputy prime minister under Ramgoolam.

"He's brilliant, he's amibitious but he's never had to guts to try for the job on his own. Maybe this time, he'll make it," says Boollel.

For Berenger and Jugnauth have teamed up again in the MMM/MSM alliance and made a deal: Jugnauth will be prime minister for three years and then retire to become president in 2003 when Cassim Uteem must retire. Berenger, the agreement has it, would become prime minister for the remaining two years and lead the alliance into its next election.

Is it legal? "Of course it is," says the former supreme court judge. Is it ethical? "As ethical as politics is anywhere," says the university don. Will it happen? "Maybe, but it may depend for the first time on how the block vote goes and the Rodrigues Party and the eight best losers," says the legal consultant.

Boollel explains that for the first time in many years voters, who must vote for three members in each of 20 constituencies, are considering splitting their votes which could strain alliances. Until this election most voters simply cast ballots for their favourite party.

"That could make the results in the 60 seats very close. Then the role of the two Rodrigues Party seats and the eight best losers becomes critical."

Rodrigues is the other much smaller populated island in Mauritius which constitutionally elects two members. Eight best losers are selected by the independent Supervisory Electoral Commission to balance political and ethnic minorities, making the final membership of the House of Assembly 70.

"I think the MMM/MSM has a chance to win but I predict that if they do, there will be a split within a year and we'll have another election and Berenger may well be denied his ambition. History repeats itself here as elsewhere," says Boollel.

The results will be known mid-afternoon next Tuesday. (SARDC)

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