The people of Mauritius would wish the electorate of Constituency No.18 to become their mouthpiece. What is important is that they come out and vote massively
First it was jubilation, then shock, and now, after a by-election has been announced, there is a glimmer of hope. The people have been patiently waiting for the day when they would be able to pronounce their mid-term verdict on the government, but it would appear that the same people have also for the first time in our history started thinking in terms of a mechanism in our Constitution to recall a government or any Member of Parliament. That things have come to a pretty pass requires no further comments.
Harbinger of a new movement
But one result of the forthcoming by-election could be the emergence of the vanguard of a new movement working to radically redefine the identity of the electorate and the politics that is practised in the country. We are not yet there but there is every likelihood that the by-election will assume national dimensions and become the voice of the electorate across Mauritius. Both the political parties and the electorate should ensure that this is so.
Confident that it still has the support of the people, the government may continue to ignore the voice of the voiceless and hope to see the opposition parties tearing at each other, thus deflecting attention from its own shortcomings and excesses. Parties in government have had little choice to decide whether they will participate in the electoral contest or not, and most probably they will opt for the easier route of not fielding a candidate. A defeat may not only result in complete disarray for the government but also may also speed up its downfall, raising the spectre of political irrelevance just like the fate that befell the IFB in 1976 and other parties thereafter.
On the other hand, as for the opposition parties, whether their candidate wins or loses is neither here nor there; the electoral contest will at least serve some useful purpose for the future: they would be able to gauge their electoral strength and, in light of the results, work out the appropriate strategies for the general elections. Like in a mock examination, they will be able to identify their strengths and weaknesses before going in for the main contest. Though the objective of obtaining a victory is legitimate for any political party, one can also ask whether the opposition parties should not go beyond their narrow interests in the particular present circumstances and find ways to enhance the significance of this election, raise the stakes so as to put an end to the arbitrariness which has prevailed for too long and which is undermining the rule of law not only in its spirit but in the very letter of the law.
Some observers have pointed out that an electoral contest at the beginning of a festive season was deliberately programmed to deflect electors from their civic duties, and a low turnout in the by-election would reduce the significance of its results for the future. It is true that a by-election and, for that matter, any by-election is generally not a precise indicator of future electoral outcomes. One has to acknowledge that should the turnout be low, government will claim victory, possibly even arguing that those who chose not to cast their votes have purposely done so in protest against the opposition’s campaign and because they are favourable to the government of the day. But a vote speaks louder than abstention. Political parties have the potential – and the obligation – to raise the stakes and mobilise the electorate through intelligent political marketing for a high turnout on election day.
Mobilising the electorate
It is too early to know how political parties will conduct their campaigns. A half-hearted effort at mobilisation could be interpreted to mean that party interests will take precedence over national interests. A campaign may be organized in such a way as to prepare the ground for future pre-electoral alliances. Indeed a three-month long campaign, which could prove tiring for both candidates and electors, will provide a reasonable excuse to justify a low turnout.
On the other hand, with a properly calibrated campaign, especially given the number of parties and candidates taking part and the relatively small size of the constituency in terms of physical layout, there is no excuse as to why the maximum number of electors cannot be brought out to cast their votes. Rather than being complacent about a possible low turnout, the election campaign should be geared in priority towards a record turnout; the electorate should therefore be motivated to courageously take up this contest as a national challenge and to make clear its aspirations for a better Mauritius.
A crucial aspect of the campaign to mobilize the electors of Belle Rose-Quatre Bornes will depend on the issues that will motivate and shake electors out of their complacency that is generally present in by-elections. Already the issue of tramway has dwindled into a matter of little importance not because the electors are not concerned with the consequences it has brought in its trail. On the contrary, they remain more concerned than ever, especially those who are directly affected. It is not that the electorate is against the project per se, but their hope is that the results of the elections would force the government to go back to the drawing board and redesign the project for there are creative ways to avoid human tragedies and to preserve the interests of the inhabitants of Quatre Bornes. There are therefore good reasons even for those who prefer to focus on the local issues to turn out in great numbers to vote.
Much more important than the tramway, major national issues should become the concern of the electorate. Local issues are important and should be addressed by the candidates but it is important to keep in mind that it is not a municipal election nor is it a general election but much closer to the latter. While local issues should be addressed, it is more important for the electorate to grasp the national issues at stake in that election. In brief, the focus of the campaign should be directed towards making the electorate of Quatre Bornes become the mouthpiece of Mauritius at this particular juncture of its history. A judicious blend of local and national issues, with the latter taking precedence over roads-and-drains politics should provide the electorate of Belle Rose-Quatre Bornes the opportunity to make its mark on national politics.
National issues must be priority
The electorate should decide whether it would allow itself to be impressed by placatory measures or instead look deep into at the issues which are undermining our society. There is no need to draw up a list of genuine grievances for each elector can make his own list based on his own experience. The media has sufficiently covered the major issues affecting our society and the future of our children. It is up to the people to weigh them, explore their various dimensions and reflect on their consequences. The issues are many: economic, social, political, environmental, and each aspect of them is affecting our lives. More concretely, they concern employment, poverty, health, housing, education, water, pollution, corruption and many more. Questions have to be asked and answers sought. Who benefits from the Repo Rate adjustments and how? Why have road deaths a class dimension? Why is the small planter class disappearing? Why are big companies given a moratorium when they flout the competition law while small fries have to bear the full force of the law? Why is casual and contractual employment on the increase?
So many of these questions will be labelled national issues, and it may be argued that they should not be the concern of electors of Belle Rose-Quatre Bornes for the time being. There is an organic relationship between one constituency with the other constituencies and with national politics. What will happen in the constituency of Belle Rose-Quatre Bornes will have ripple effects on Mauritius and more particularly on its political landscape. The people of Mauritius would wish the electorate of the constituency to become their mouthpiece. What is important is that they come out and vote massively; whom they vote for is for them to decide. Political parties and the candidates must also see themselves as the harbingers of a new society and they have to do everything in their power to get the electorate to cast their votes – whether it is a blank vote or not.
It may not even matter who wins the election provided the people vote massively – really massively for the winner or the loser. It will require hard work for all the opposition parties and the one who will win must remember that elections are no longer won on the eve as it used to be the case in the past but right up to the closing time of the polls. There are several lessons to draw from previous elections when candidates secured their seats at the last hour while others lost for lack of sustained efforts. Let us hope that all the stakeholders – parties as well as the electorate – rise up to the challenge and fight the by-election the hope of ushering a new phase in the development of our democracy and society. There is no place anymore for complacency or over-optimism for the stakes are too important for our already limping democracy.
* Published in print edition on 6 October 2017