Dissent and Political Parties in Mauritius

More than ever dissent has become the only way to hold on to democracy

By Sada Reddi

At a moment when the national imagination is speculating about a national government comprising several parties it is opportune to reflect on dissent in party politics. The public tend to view political parties as disciplined armies marching under the orders of the party leaders. The reality could hardly be more different.

Pic – Forbes

People join parties with different objectives and ideals and for different reasons. And when parties fail to live up to their expectations, they vote with their feet, sometimes joining other parties or even founding their own parties. It is hardly surprising that dissent has shaped the political landscape in all countries and Mauritius is no exception. While dissent is generally suspect in the eyes of many, it is an essential ingredient for democracy to survive and must be encouraged and applauded as a democratic value; the more widespread it is the better for political life.

All parties have faced dissent during their lifetime. Very often the differences are sufficiently minor to be swept under the carpet so to keep projecting an image of unity. In other cases, differences have to be accommodated until a manageable consensus is reached. When this happens, political parties explain such compromise as a sign of internal democracy within the party. But when differences cannot be accommodated within an organisation or a party, splits occur, leading sometimes to expulsions or purges.

In March 1969, a group of dissidents broke away from the IFB. The IFB withdrew from the government and five of its members joined the MLP. The PMSD was split after it joined the coalition government in 1969, and in 1970 the PMSD dissidents formed the UDM (‘Union Démocratique Mauricienne’). In 1973, Dev Virahsawmy resigned from the MMM and formed the MMSP (‘Mouvement Militant Socialiste Progressiste’).

Earlier, in 1971 a few founding members of the MMM had left the MMM. In July 1979, dissidents from the MLP, led by Harish Boodhoo, were expelled from the Labour Party and they went on to form the PSM. In 1994, the MMM split led to the creation of the RMM. Within the PMSD, the rift between sir Gaetan Duval and his son, Xavier, led to the formation of the PMXD, which stood for ‘Parti Mauricien Xavier Duval’. The MSM is a fusion of MMM dissidents and the PSM. The list of parties which have suffered splits are numerous and dissent continues to rent parties up to the present.

Dissent in political parties resulting in splits or break-ups are usually condemned by the party leadership and the partisan electorate for, when such breakaways occur, they weaken the party, undermine its unity or may reflect poorly on party leadership. Party loyalists also join the chorus in castigating dissidents and subscribe to the motives given by the party leadership. Such dissidence is ascribed to a number of motives ranging from treachery, sell-out or naked self-interest.

These reasons are always suspect for they are used to conceal the real reasons, which very often may have to do with poor leadership or policy failures. In fact, other factors being papered over are more important – such as clash of personalities, ideological differences, disagreements on public policies but equally important is the authoritarian attitude of party leaders and the domination of the party and its organisation by particular groups which make splits inevitable, especially as all parties in Mauritius tend in varying degrees to be more patrimonial and dynastic than democratic.

It is also true that the political culture in Mauritius generally regards dissent in parties as disloyal. In government such ‘disloyalty’ undermines effective government, cohesion and executive action, and parties do everything to maintain discipline through whips and even toying with cabinet and PPS posts to keep dissent at bay. Ultimately, the absence of dissent in both government and opposition parties means that parties vote on party lines and MLAs have little scope to air independent views or reflect the wishes of their constituents.

Whatever be the motives of those who dissent from their parties, whether they invoke lofty principles or are barely cloaked matters of material interest, dissent by itself is healthy for the functioning of democratic life. Look at the numerous small parties which are the fruits of dissent that have punctuated the political landscape over half a century of political life – MMSP, les Verts, PSM, Parti du Sud, Lalit, Rezistans ek Alternativ, MR, MTD, MMSD, RMM and many more.

All these parties have enriched the political landscape, they represent a wide spectrum of political ideas and approaches to politics and have in various ways served as a brake to authoritarian tendencies, broken the hold of the mainstream parties on the electorate and weakened them during electoral contests.

They make governments more representative and legitimate than they would have been otherwise. For example, small parties that had been in government alliances like the PSM, the PMSD, les Verts or ML, despite their minority support have provided legitimacy to governments, helped them to become inclusive or given them an image of inclusiveness more acceptable to the population even if this appears symbolic to many. Otherwise, the dominant government party either would have appeared to represent either one ethnic group or a particular slate of constituencies. This would have made it difficult for any government to win the adherence of the population in a plural society like Mauritius.

Dissent when it occurred in government parties and alliances has led to the breakup of government and the postponement or the withdrawal of certain objectionable measures. In 1982, divergence on economic and cultural policies led to the breakup of the MMM-PSM government and new elections in 1983.The issue of republic and more particularly the prospect of an MSM-MMM alliance provoked disagreement in the government.

The bill making Mauritius a Republic was postponed until the formation of a new government which then proceeded to make Mauritius a Republic. The Labour-MSM government was weakened after the departure of the MSM from the government following the Medpoint affair. More recently the PMSD walked out of government when an attempt was made to rein in the independence of the DPP, thus putting a brake to the authoritarian tendencies of government.

Whatever judgement one may have of dissent, it plays a crucial role in the furthering of democracy. This is why after all we have an adversary political system with an official opposition party or alliance with a leader of the Opposition, where dissent from the opposition benches can be voiced out on any issue. It contributes significantly to increase accountability and transparency, and even when questions are evaded and long-winded answers given are irrelevant and incomplete, they nevertheless unwittingly signal to the public various cases of maladministration and corruption.

Over time the Mauritian public has slowly learnt the lesson that dissent is crucial for democracy to survive and they will not only support politicians dissenting from their parties but they have become suspicious of strong governments which ride roughshod on independent views expressed by party members. Whatever be their support at one time for 60-0 or for parties winning overwhelming majorities with more than a three-quarter majority in the National Assembly, it seems that that the electorate is no longer supportive of a government of national unity nor for strong majority governments that will be tempted to override good governance principles or the wishes of the electorate. More than ever dissent has become the only way to hold on to democracy.

* Published in print edition on 27 August 2021

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