“Anything can happen. Anything!”

Interview: Kugan Parapen

‘The upcoming elections are going to be the most open elections we have ever had in Mauritius since Independence’

 * ‘The MMM has a bigger chance of being a kingmaker rather than becoming the king’

 


In this week’s interview Kugan Parapen Rezistans ek Alternativ gives us a raw appraisal of the distortions in our electoral process which gives prerogatives to the sole prime minister about the date elections, and analyses the various factors that will likely influence voter behaviour. Given what he believes – like many others – is the parlous state of our economy he expresses much concern about what is in store for the country’s future and its coming generations who look set to become debt-trapped as a result of the policy decisions being made. He gives his party’s take on a number of issues such as education, the housing situation, the giving-in to the gentiles and other interest groups which is compromising further the social and economic landscape of the country to the detriment of the masses.


 

Mauritius Times: Speculations are running high these days regarding the holding of the next general elections. One that appears to be a reasoned opinion is that the government might choose to go to the polls before the Intermediate Court delivers its ruling in the alleged money laundering case against Navin Ramgoolam which has been fixed for 15 November 2019. A favourable decision in favour of the LP leader would knock the wind out of the MSM-ML’s sails, and it is quite understandable that the Government would want to pre-empt any discomfiture. What do you think?

Kugan Parapen: It should never be the prerogative of a Prime Minister to decide the timing of general elections in a democracy. Foreigners laugh at us when we tell them that we don’t know the date of the next general elections. From a fairness standpoint, the incumbent government is advantaged and that should simply not be the case.

That said, I believe the resignation of Lutchmeenaraidoo was a serious blow to this government. It placed them in a position where they have little room to manoeuvre. Pravind Jugnauth would have certainly preferred to be the master of his own destiny. As things are shaping up, he is being forced into a general election. And as such, he has had to reassess his strategy.

If what you say about the timing of the next general elections is correct, then I think it’s a foolish strategy. By planning his electoral strategy on the timing of the ruling of Navin Ramgoolam’s money laundering case, he would in effect be publicly admitting that he fears Ramgoolam. And that will ultimately play against him.

Had this government been a performing government, they should have had nothing to fear from a Labour Party led by Ramgoolam. But such was their dismal performance, that we are now talking about choosing between ‘la peste et le choléra’.

Truth be told, many Mauritians won’t change their perception of Ramgoolam based on the outcome of the money laundering case. Just like many Mauritians did not change their mind on Pravind Jugnauth after his acquittal by the Privy Council. All this secrecy about the date of the elections is frankly childish and unnecessary. 

* It’s rather amazing that Ramgoolam who has been more or less hounded since that fateful 6 February 2015 and publicly humiliated like no other political leader has been before should have come back – after winning to date all but one of the court cases against him – as a serious contender in the race to become the next Prime Minister again. Is there such a thing as a “Ramgoolam factor” which weighs heavily in our politics?

When Barack Obama completed his second term as President of the United States, many rooted for his wife, Michelle Obama to stand as candidate. Instead it was Hilary Clinton, wife of former President Bill Clinton, who stood as the Democratic presidential candidate.

We all know of the Bush and Kennedy political dynasties. Interestingly, none among the first many Presidents of the United States were related to each other. How do we go about explaining this? The emergence of broadcast media, especially television, has played an instrumental role in fabricating the cult of personality.

Broadcast media has been instrumental in transforming mere humans into heroes and heroines. But there is more to it. Ramgoolam, for many, is a demi-god. He would never have existed without his father. At independence, for many Mauritians, we replaced a foreign Queen with a local King. Didn’t we replace the Queen’s face with Seewoosagur’s face on our coins? Is the airport not named after the ‘father of the nation’?

Did Anerood Jugnauth not issue a 20-rupee note with the face of his wife on it in the 1990s? Did Anerood Jugnauth not name the stadium in Belle Vue after himself initially? Are those symptoms of democracy or monarchy? I will let the reader form his/her own opinion. 

And yes, the ‘Ramgoolam’ factor weighs heavily in our politics. For obvious reasons.

* But we have yet to see if Navin Ramgoolam and the Labour Party will make it again, for the battle is surely going to be rough and tough – it’s probably going to be short and swift as well — since the Government is showing its determination not to take things lying down. There is the metro and more inaugurations coming, and the old-aged will have their Rs 13,500 in due course as announced by the PM this week. What’s your take on all that? 

The last election was lost by the Labour Party-MMM alliance because the electorate did not adhere to their presidential republic. This time around, we will be going back to basics. We can thus expect a cohort of electoral promises from all political parties in the coming weeks.

As the incumbent government, the MSM-ML will have to put forward their achievements over the last five years. The metro is meant to be the cherry on the cake. Except that the cake has long gone stale and unpalatable.

Will Jugnauth be bold enough to sacrifice the worms which infected the cake? And what about the snakes that he has lined up to replace the worms? All this makes for a very interesting few weeks ahead. 

* Economists might argue that an increase of the old-age pension of the magnitude announced by the Prime Minister would make the system unsustainable. How do you go about explaining to the lambda pensioner that the price to pay for such a pension is going to be very heavy? 

Everyone should be entitled to live a decent and dignified life, especially pensioners. We owe them our present after all.

The decision to increase the old-age pension at the last elections in 2014 was indeed a masterstroke from l’Alliance Lepep. But by promising to double the pension to Rs. 13,500 this time around, is Jugnauth acting in a responsible manner? Let us not forget that the successive budgets presented by the MSM-ML government were mostly financed by external money from foreign nations and by taxes on gas and petrol. Let us also not forget that the government raided the Central Bank’s reserves to be used by the Consolidated Fund.

In a nutshell, this government has certainly not consolidated the financial resilience of our country. Public debt has risen alarmingly over the last five years while the purchasing power of the population shrank due to the weak rupee policy adopted since day one by the Ministry of Finance. All this while granting billions of tax exemption to the private sector, especially the elite class.

While grandpa and grandma may have reasons to appreciate this government, their siblings and grandchildren have reasons to be worried about their future over the medium to long terms. 

Jugnauth has to explain exactly how this proposed doubling of the old-age pension is going to be financed. Will he increase the already heavy fiscal burden on the population? Will he leverage on future generations? Will he scrape the remaining reserves of the State? Or will he finally ask the elite to contribute their fair share to society?

To recall, only 20% of the value created in the Republic is taxed. Developed economies like France, UK, Germany and most Nordic countries have tax ratios above 40%. Jugnauth needs to tell us how he will do it. This is essential. Because let us not forget that most grandparents ultimately want their grandchildren to live a dignified life. If Jugnauth cannot reassure the population that his electoral promise will not jeopardise the future of younger generations, his joker card will be useless.

* To go back to politics: It seems there is also the MMM factor – or should we say the “Berenger factor” as well in local politics. He has been saying lately that we shall be in for some surprises since the MMM is going to win in both the urban and rural constituencies. Can we imagine 1976 happening again with the MMM emerging as the largest single majority party at the next elections? 

The nostalgic voters will certainly be hoping for something along those lines. But a lot of water has flown under the MMM bridge since 1976.

The latest wave of resignations from the party did act as a lifebuoy for a party which has been adrift for so long. While in the minds of many of the diehard supporters of the MMM, their party is still a leftist party, reality tells us otherwise. The core supporters are living in denial, still reminiscent of yesteryears when the MMM was a political incarnation of the working class. That is not the case anymore.

Ideology has been replaced by power politics. Even the recent call to the leftists to join forces with the MMM has more to do with power politics than ideological reconciliation. I doubt the MMM can emerge as they did in 1976. One has the feeling that they are at the other end of the spectrum. 

* But what if the division of votes in both the urban and rural constituencies in a three-cornered battle proves Paul Berenger right ultimately?

If they manage to play the nostalgia card right and can present themselves as the only credible alternative to Ramgoolam/Jugnauth, then they might have a remote chance. Many have been talking about the fact that 2019 is quite different from 1976.

In 1976, it was the PTr, PMSD and MMM which faced each other while in 2019, the ‘three-cornered fight’ is likely to involve PTr, MMM and MSM. So that needs to be appreciated by all. Nevertheless, I still think that in terms of probability, the MMM has a bigger change of being a kingmaker rather than becoming the king. 

* But do you think that at the end of the day it’s a good thing for the country that we are heading for a three-cornered electoral battle? 

I strongly refute the ‘three-cornered electoral battle’ appellation of the upcoming elections. I believe that the 2019 elections can be the time when Mauritius finally moves into multipartism.

I have always been an ardent advocate of post-electoral coalitions as they serve a better purpose than the fake pre-electoral recipes we have been served with since 1976. 2014 was a stark reminder that pre- electoral alliances do not always add up. It is thus a logical step that most political parties stand on their own feet at the upcoming elections.

We believe that they will be a multi-cornered electoral battle as opposed to a three-cornered one. Beware of surprises! 

* A three-cornered fight might not however serve the best interests of democracy, since the mainstream parties will incontestably be a contest opposing the mainstream parties. It might thus prove difficult yet again for the ideologically-driven and green parties to make their voices heard. That’s rather frustrating, isn’t it?

Now is certainly not the time to be frustrated. On the contrary, we are really geared up at the prospect of challenging the status-quo at the upcoming elections. We are confident that the message we are articulating is being heard and understood by an increasing number of people. The challenge is now to convert this increasing popularity into votes on polling day.

Bipolarisation of elections is the worst electoral set-up for emerging parties. Anything else actually works in favour of emerging parties like Rezistans ek Alternativ. In the current setup, 25% of the votes might be sufficient to go through in some constituencies. That isn’t so high a threshold, is it? I reiterate that the upcoming elections are going to be the most open elections we have ever had in Mauritius since Independence. Anything can happen. Anything!

* Even if you or your party candidates do not make it to the next Assembly, will you go on keeping a close watch over the next government’s policies? If so, which sector in particular and why?

Rezistans ek Alternativ has fully played its role as an extra-parliamentary force over the last five years and intends to carry on, irrespective of the results of the next elections.

We have brought to the fore many societal issues which are adversely affecting the lives of most Mauritians in general. Take the gentrification process currently underway in Mauritius for example. This should be the most pressing concern for Mauritians as this process will dramatically impact the life of Mauritians on the island. We have already experienced first-hand the impact of opening our doors to the international elite. We are in the midst of an unprecedented housing crisis whereby it is impossible for the majority of Mauritians to become the owner of their dwelling. The liberalisation of housing markets means that the average Mauritian is now competing with the rest of the world to buy a property. That is ridiculous.

From an ecological perspective, Rezistans ek Alternativ has been challenging several EIA Licenses distributed by the government to several of their political funders. This is an ecological abuse that we need to keep an eye on, as one must not forget that Mauritius is among the most vulnerable states when it comes to climate change. There is also the grabbing of commons which is intricately linked to the gentrification agenda. Over the last five years, we’ve seen multiple attempts to privatise spaces which were previously under the control of all Mauritians, public beaches being a prominent example. 

We all know that our economy is in bad shape and likely to face many headwinds in coming years. There will be attempts by the crony private sector in coming years to impose their agenda on the population for their own sake. The depreciation of the Mauritian Rupee will surely be an avenue that the capitalist class will be thinking of. A weaker rupee increases the cost of living of the population. The Mauritian Rupee has been constantly depreciated since independence and that is a major concern. We urgently need to rethink our economic model. And this includes the fiscal structure as well as it is revolting that the burden of the budget is shouldered to a greater extent by the average Mauritian than the more affluent strata.

Our education system is also a major concern. The level of education provided in our public schooling system is on the decline and there is a worrying trend of privatisation of education currently underway in Mauritius. Given that education is one of the most important pillars of society’s structure, this fracture of our education system is definitely something that needs to be on our minds.

Lastly, the approach adopted to deal with social issues like drug addiction and law and order needs to be closely monitored as successive governments haven’t been very progressive in regard to these thorny and complex problems. They have actually been very repressive and completely out of phase with the global progressive trend. 


* Published in print edition on 4 October 2019

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