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Mauritius Pundits Predict Opposition Victory
by Hugh McCullum

Port Louis, 8 September 2000

Undertones of political change and rivalries in the ethnic and religious mix in this tiny island nation emerged in the dying days of the election campaign as voters prepare for the polls on Monday.

Mauritius has had six parliaments since its independence in 1968. Each has been headed by a powerful prime minister who has come from the Hindu majority whose ancestors were brought here by the British as indentured labourers in the sugar cane plantations.

There has never been a Muslim even though they are 17 percent of the population, no Creole whose descendents came from the first African slaves has attained high office or even a Chinese who are powerful in business, only Hindu prime ministers and they from a particular ruling caste.

That will not change immediately after this election, but with the outcome predicted as a win for the opposition, a white from the tiny franco-Mauritian community of about 10,000 in the 1.2 million population could take this powerful role in three years.

The complexities of the political culture here are based on ever-shifting alliances and coalitions. The party in power which dissolved parliament on August 11 and called a snap election before its term expired, allowing only 30 days for campaigning - the shortest in history - may find its strategy has backfired in favour of a new-old alliance.

Prime Minister Nevin Ramgoolam caught everyone napping when, as is his legal right, he ended the fifth parliament to go to the people in an alliance between his Labour Party and the Mauritian Party of Xavier Duval (PMXD).

Analysts say he expected that in a three-way race his alliance would win most of the 60 elected seats in the House of Assembly. The other two significant parties, the Militant Socialist Movement (MSM) led by long-time former prime minister, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, a Hindu lawyer, and the Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM) headed by long-time politician, Paul Berenger, a white businessman and some 30 small parties which rarely elect any parliamentarians would lose, the Ramgoolam reasoning went.

Both parties and their leaders have been in power before in alliances with each other and at times with Labour but have usually split once the election campaign unity ended. And that could happen again.

The difference this time, says Jean-Claude de l'Estrac, editor-in-chief of the influiential l'express newspaper, largest in the country, is that MMM/MSM cut a deal that turned the three-way battle for the ballot into a two-way struggle. Labour and its smaller ally was sure the two other parties would hold each other to a draw and allow Ramgoolam to slide into power again.

"Ramgoolam's a nice man, he ran a fairly competent government, but there is a feeling that he didn't do enough to keep our economic growth high in these globalized times. People wanted a change but without an opposition alliance there was no alternative," says de l'Estrac. "But then the Jugnauth-Berenger deal was made and everything changed 10 days after the writs were dropped".

Jugnauth had been prime minister for 13 years of phenomenal economic growth until 1995 when he was scuppered by an alliance of Ramgoolam and Berenger which fell apart six weeks after the elections.

The deal hammered out by MMM and MSM puts Jugnauth, the stabilizer in the prime minister's offices for three years, when he will retire to an enhanced presidency, leaving Berenger the prime-ministership. Will it work? Berenger has a poor track record in alliances and he is from the white minority. He would be the first non-Hindu.

Many people are convinced Mauritius cannot afford another five years of Labour and Ramgoolam although the economy is in good shape "but not good enough", says Abdullah Aukloo, a Muslim businessman who will vote for MMM/MSM. "We are okay but we need to move fast to keep up with technology, improve our textiles and find jobs for the skilled school graduates who will not work as factory hands or in the sugar fields."

Aukloo says Ramgoolam was too easy-going, Jugnauth, although now 71, is fit and has always been a tough, aggressive leader. "We need him to keep our edge."

De l'Estrac agrees and says that ethnicity is an import from India. "People will accept Berenger because he's capable, they don't care if he's white. I'm a Hindu but I think we are now mature enough to end this ethnic tradition of always having caste Hindu prime ministers. A few politicians are playing games by looking at the Indian model which doesn't work there and would never work here."

It's clear he is referring to Ramgoolam who has campaigned against the white Berenger, saying he has too small an ethnic base. "Nonsense, he's a Mauritian for many generations. We don't want this ethnic stuff raised here. By the time Berenger becomes prime minister Jugnauth will have the country back on course and he can retire to the presidency which will be constitutionally altered to rein-in some of the immense powers of the prime minister."

Mauritian politics have this esoteric set of political complexities and with two days still to go when each alliance will hold huge rallies anything is possible. But for most observers the Jugnauth-Berenger alliance is appealing "because our economy is everything. We don't hold grudges. The day after the election I will have tea with my political opponents," says Aukloo "and we will work for Mauritius."

There are 790,000 eligible voters, 535 candidates and 60 elected seats in 20 constituencies plus two seats in the off-shore island of Rodrigues along with a maximum of eight "best losers" to make sure ethnic and political minorities have a say. All voters cast ballots for three candidates in each constituency except Rodrigues. This is known as block-voting.

"In the end," says the suave and articulate el'Estrac, "it's not about anything more than our growing economy and the style of our leaders. Everything else - ethnicity, religion, unemployment, social issues, the lot - is marginal. We are Mauritians and we are our own people, not Indians, not Africans." (SARDC)

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