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Vibrant Democratic Culture Evident as Mauritius Goes to Polls
by Hugh McCullum

Port Louis, 5 September 2000

The island nation of Mauritius, some 2,000 km off the east coast of Africa, goes to the polls on 11 September to elect its seventh House of Assembly. It is almost certainly one of the oldest democracies among all the countries, which, like it, belong to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Organization of African Unity (OAU).

It has had a legislative council with elected members since 1885, long before it achieved independence in 1968 after being colonized first by Dutch, then the French and finally the British.

The country consists of the main island Mauritius, Rodrigues island and a number of smaller outer islands and has a population of more than 1.2 million whose ties to south India, some 4,000 km away, are as strong as those to Africa.

The islands, famed in the outside world for their tourism and stunning beaches, actually are heavily agricultural in nature with sugar the main crop and, more recently, have diversified economically with the successful development of Export Processing Zones (EPZ).

As a small developing state with a complex ethnic makeup, Mauritius faced immense difficulties when it gained independence. Students of governance claim that two of the greatest stumbling blocks to consolidating democracies are ethnic conflict and unrealized hope for economic progress. Mauritius had to face both – extreme cultural and linguistic diversity and an economy based entirely on agriculture and cheap labour brought in from India, Africa and China for the European plantations.

More than 30 years later it has a mature and rich political system suited to its own realities and an outstanding record of economic development.

The Mauritian constitution recognizes four “communities”: Hindus who are about 51 percent; Creoles, largely of African descent, 28 percent; Muslims, 17 percent and Chinese, about three percent. The historical elite of islands, the Franco-Mauritians, total about 10,000 and still dominate the various sectors of the economy.

After a shaky start in the first post-independence election in 1972, Mauritius has had six successful national elections, generally peaceful, fair and keenly contested by several political parties.

It is a parliamentary democracy with a prime minister who heads government and a largely ceremonial president, currently Cassam Uteem. Before elections were called Navinchandra Ramgoolam was prime minister, elected on 27 December 1995 as leader of the Mauritian Labour Party (MLP). The House of Assembly elects the president.

Mauritius uses an unusual system of determining the makeup of the 70-member parliament modelled on the British first-past-the-post system but with some modifications. Sixty-two members are elected from 20 constituencies by popular vote. This system, known as block voting, means that each voter casts three votes

for three candidates from each constituency, the lightly populated island of Rodrigues returns two members also by block vote.

A maximum of eight members are allocated from among a list of “best losers” which is based on ethnic minority representation. The government’s mandate is five years, however on the advise of the prime minister, the President can call an election early as was done this year when parliament was dissolved on 10 August following the resignation of two cabinet ministers. The election would normally have been held in December at any rate.

The block voting and best losers system was devised at independence as a means of ensuring that electors related to political parties rather than communal or ethnic groupings. While the system seems to have worked well, there is a recent movement to study amendments to it favouring Proportional Representation rather than first-past the post. However, the block system will be in place when the voters go to the polls 11 September.

There will be 22 established parties, coalitions and independent candidates vying for control of the parliament. In 1995 the unicameral parliament had 66 seats, 62 of them elected with the Mauritian Labour Party (MLP) taking 35 seats and the Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM) winning 25. Four smaller parties, including two from Rodrigues, won the remained. The President appoints the Leader of the Opposition. This year 568 candidates have been nominated.

Elections are run by an independent Electoral Supervisory Committee (ESC) appointed by the President on advice from the prime minister and judicial and legal services commission. Similarly an independent Electoral Boundaries Commission exists and an Electoral Commissioner, independent of any person or authority, has complete executive powers over the election process, informing the ESC on such matters as registration and the conduct of the election.

The country, after many years of surviving almost solely on the sugar industry, decided at independence to diversify by encouraging the EPZ concept of export programmes and by 1990 manufacturing had surpassed the sugar industry and now account for more than 70 percent of exports, sugar taking up the remainder.

Per capita income is US$3,250, placing it in the category of a Newly Industrialized Country (NIC).

Since most Mauritians are descended from immigrants who first came in the 17th century as slaves or indentured labourers, except for the various European colonizers, the culture is extremely diverse with backgrounds from India, Africa, East Asia and Europe. It is an island of immigrants with no indigenous Population. Immigration ended in the 19th century and there have been few new permanent arrivals since.

English is the official, but not the most common, language. Others more generally used languages are French and Creole. (SARDC)

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