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Changing Parties and Governments a Mauritian Habit
by Hugh McCullum

Port Louis, 6 September 2000

Although the parliamentary elections next Monday in Mauritius will have some 22 independent names, political parties and party alliances on the ballot paper, it really all boils down to four parties -- or two alliances - who are serious contenders to take control of the 70-seat House of Assembly.

Complicated? Well, not to Mauritians who rarely hold party allegiances from one five-year election to another, often change their loyalties in mid-term and usually throw the ruling party (or coalition) out after one term or sometimes in mid-term.

This year the Militant Mauritian Movement (MMM) and its old rival the Mauritian Socialist Movement (MSM) have formed an alliance to run candidates in all 20 constituencies - 60 candidates in all because every voter casts a ballot for three members of parliament - making them serious contenders to defeat another alliance between the recently ruling Labour Party and a traditionally smaller party, the Mauritian Party of Maurice Duval (PMXD).

Mauritians of all backgrounds shrug off this plethora of parties with a businessman's comment "that Mauritians only know two parties here - Labour and MMM." A bewildering ballot in a somewhat complex voting system. Only one other party is fielding a full slate, the Hizbullah Party which is for the island nation's Muslims who represent 17 percent of the population. In 1995, the party got only one seat, proving that ethnicity or religion have little to do with the way Mauritians vote. Small wonder then that most of the 568 official candidates will never see Parliament.

Just to complicate matters, although 60 people will be elected, the total number in the House could be as high as 70. The other populated island in this country, Rodrigues gets four seats held usually by two parties from the offshore island, and the eight best losers represent ethnic groups who have been missed by the elected parties.

But it seems to work. Driving through the traffic-choked streets of Port Louis, the capital, the skies are almost obliterated by masses of plastic pennants, flags and bunting, assaulting the eyes with a shocking mix of blue, red violet and white, the first two symbols of Labour and the latter the MMM. Usually they are so interlaced the newcomer is hard-pressed to sort it all out, especially when the green of Hizbullah is the background.

To Mauritians it's simple, they worry more about the huge amounts of plastic that will degrade the environment the day after 11 September when the electorate has had its say as they block vote for three members for each of the 20 constituencies on the main island.

"There is really no loyalty to parties here, either by voters or politicians except for some of the smaller parties who can't form a government anyway. Voters see the politicians forming alliances and then abandoning them so they usually just vote for change," says political analyst Raj Mathur of the University of Mauritius. He adds that the concept of a ruling party as in so many continental African countries is foreign to Mauritius.

The latest coalitions face stiff contests from each other, although people around the Central Market give the nod to MSM/MMM over Labour/PMXD. In the last House Labour and MMM were in an alliance led by Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam (Labour) and Deputy Prime minister Paul Berenger (MMM). That coalition split within six weeks. Labour kept power and MMM went into opposition.

This time round Ramgoolam has formed an alliance with the old Mauritian Socialist Party, having taken the name Maurice Duval, son of the party's founder. In the meantime MMM and MST have been in and out of alliances together but are campaigning as one in hopes of ending Labour's hold on power.

Complications have arisen, however, since the two leaders Sir Anerood Jugnauth (MSM) and Paul Berenger (MMM) have decided to share the prime ministership -- Jugnauth for three years, Berenger for two. Since the prime minister is head of government, analysts like Mathur ask what happens if there is a split -- a likely occurrence -- in the midst of parliament's five-year term or if one party actually elects more MPs than the other, in the event it wins at all.

To most Mauritians it is a struggle between political elites and seems to work well for the 1.2 million people who have relatively low unemployment and an annual per capita income of more than US$3,000.

The issues are slim for most politicians. A lot of new roads get built and concerns are expressed over privatization of the airport. Cow breeders have been relieved of a six million rupee debt contracted in 1987 and taxi-owners can buy new cars duty free every four years instead of five. The latest promise is that there will be free transport for students and the elderly.

The main rallies will wind up Saturday and Sunday and voters go to the polls Monday. Results are expected Tuesday (SARDC).

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