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Opposition Alliance Sweeps to Victory in Mauritius
by Hugh McCullum

Port Louis, 12 September 2000

Two veteran Mauritian politicians led their opposition alliance to a substantial victory as vote-counting concluded today in the island country's parliamentary elections and almost wiped out the governing alliance led by Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam.

The Militant Mauritian Movement (MMM) and its partner the Militant Socialist Movement (MSM) won 54 seats to only six for the Labour-dominated alliance. Veteran politician, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, 73, the aristocratic Hindu who has already been prime minister for 13 years at various times, will shortly take office from Ramgoolam.

His deputy will be another professional politician, Paul Berenger, 55, leader of the MMM. In a deal made about three weeks ago, Jugnauth will serve as prime minister for three years when he will become the president of Mauritius and Berenger will take over the powerful prime minister's position. President Cassim Uteem, the current head of state, who is appointed by the House of Assembly is expected to have his term extended by one year to accommodate the arrangement.

Some 81 percent of the 790,000 plus registered voters cast ballots for more than 40 parties and independent candidates in 20 constituencies.Two seats on offshore Rodrigues Island were taken by local parties who usually join the ruling coalition in the House of Assembly and get a cabinet post. Over the next two days the independent Electoral Supervisory Commission will do a statistical analysis of the votes and decide on a maximum of eight "best losers" to balance ethnic and political minorities but their decision will not affect the balance of the voters' decision.

While the MMM/MSM alliance was cobbled together quickly when Ramgoolam called a snap election August 11 with four months remaining in his mandate, Jugnauth and Berenger are no strangers to alliance government. They were partners twice before in forming governments but these alliances did not hold and invariably Berenger returned to opposition.

Indeed, the big question today aside from the blaring chaotic celebrations across the island, is whether the alliance can stick long enough for Jugnauth to establish himself, amend the constitution to strengthen the presidency and take that unelected ceremonial office within three years. Berenger has walked out of three alliances in his 30 years in politics including the two others with Jugnauth and a third with Ramgoolam in 1995 which wiped out the MSM.

Analysts are adamant that today's winning alliance is the last chance for both men. "Juganuth is too old and if Berenger splits this alliance again before he becomes prime minister, the voters will never give him another chance," said Vinod Boolell, a former Supreme Court justice and legal consultant.

Berenger has always aspired to be head of government but his penchant for breaking away from his political partners means the high office has always eluded him. Both Jugnauth and Berenger have spent much of the campaign - successfully it seems - assuring voters that this time it is "an alliance of equality, there are no junior or senior partner as there has been in the past," Jugnauth told reporters gathered the packed constituency counting centre where he took first place (all 20 constituencies elect three MPs) in the constituency race.

Ramgoolam, whose snap election tactics to avoid a scandal in his cabinet when two ministers were forced to resign over allegations of corruption, seems to have backfired, won his own seat but watched helplessly as most of his cabinet and his alliance partner, Charles Duval of the Mauritian Party of Xavier Duval (PMXD), go down to defeat.

There were no burning issues. Both alliances are ideologically in the centre. The economy is in good shape, unemployment and inflation low and promises to raise GDP and make government more effective were made equally by both sides.

The voters, however, seemed in a mood to punish Ramgoolam for the mild outbreak of corruption and his snap election. His more phlegmatic style was interpreted by some as lacking in an energetic policy-making, but the people wanted change for whatever reason.

Jugnauth, a grandfatherly figure with a shock of white hair is credited with Mauritius' economic boom which grew phenomenally while he was in office from 1982 to 1995 in various alliances, until he was badly defeated by Ramgoolam and Berenger. Jugnauth, who has a reputation for tough leadership and little interest in the perks of leadership, showed little emotion Tuesday afternoon while his supporters went wild.

Berenger, elected personally with an equally wide majority in his constituency is a dapper white-haired energetic ex-journalist who has been a politician all his life. He is an ethnic white Franco-Mauritian, the smallest of the island's multi-ethnic mosaic. In 1982 he was Jugnauth's deputy and finance minister but resigned the same year. His MMM party was defeated in 1983 by Jugnauth's MSF but they re-formed the alliance in 1991 which soon split again. In 1995 Berenger and MMM joined Ramgoolam to oust Jugnauth with a total sweep of 60 seats. Six weeks later that alliance also split and Berenger went back to being the perennial opposition leader.

Although both alliances paid lip-service to gender equality when asked, few women contested the election and none was elected. The "best losers" roll could make minor changes in that direction.

The election campaign was passionate in its rhetoric but completely peaceful during the brief campaign, election day and as the results came in Tuesday. All political parties have accepted the results and the independent electoral bodies are fully supported by the various parties in terms of efficiency and independence.

The "maximum of eight "best losers" is expected to be announced by the end of the week and the handover to the Jugnauth-Berenger alliance will follow shortly. (SARDC)

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