The election date has yet to be declared, but Mauritius has been preparing itself for a new government for some time now. Earlier this year it looked like the election would be a straightforward fight between the MMM-MSM and the Labour Party and its junior partners, including the PMSD, but all that has changed in the last few months.
Paul Berenger, until recently the official leader of the opposition, unceremoniously ditched his long-term friend and rival, former Prime Minister and President, Sir Anerood Jugnauth (did the public exchange of birthday cake between the two men really happen, or was I dreaming?) and found a new partner in the Prime Minister, Navin Ramgoolam. These two men came together ostensibly to create a new Constitution for the country, a second Republic, which will split executive powers between an elected president with a term of seven years and prime minister with a term of five years.
The claim put forward by Ramgoolam and Berenger to their supporters and the wider electorate is that this division of powers will herald a widening and deepening of the country’s democratic space, and will somehow revitalise its economic fortunes. But critics have been quick to point out that this alliance is less about the country and more about personal ambition – in particular Paul Berenger’s enormous desire to become Prime Minister for a second time without having to wait three years as agreed with his former partner, Sir Anerood, and also Navin Ramgoolam’s intention not to assume the presidency without maintaining at least some grip on power. Otherwise, the argument goes, how is it possible to explain that the fierce decades-old rivalry of the leaders and the teams of the two largest political parties in Mauritius, the MMM and Labour Party, has been set aside so swiftly?
Critics have also questioned the strength of the relationship between Ramgoolam and Berenger, pointing out that their historical relationship has never been easy, and that their new-found friendship is only evident because they are not currently competing against one another for power and influence. The expectation is that if the two men do eventually form a government – and some argue that it is a big if – then it is only a question of time before there is conflict over one or more areas of policy.
Unsurprisingly, in this febrile atmosphere new political parties have emerged – in particular two parties headed by two former female academics, Ensam led by Dr Roshni Mooneram and Le Parti Justice Sociale (PJS) headed by Dr Sheila Bunwaree – though no one quite knows how much support either party will garner when it comes to judgement day. As far as I can make out, the basic message of the two parties seems to be based on interlinked themes of political and moral renewal underpinned by the promise of a future meritocracy. The hope of these new entrants to the political arena is that this message will appeal to young urban voters, alienated from the patronage politics of the past. As it says on the Ensam website: “Ensam is the rush of fresh, fiery blood through veins tired with old, polluted streams”.
I suppose that one really big question, given the relatively poor turnout at the rallies in Quatre Bornes and Vacoas on 12 October for the main rival coalitions, is: is the population still engaged with the political process, or has it lost faith in what can be achieved at the ballot box? Making the question more difficult to answer, of course, is that it appears that no one – neither political activists nor expert local analysts – can work out the intentions of the so-called Facebook generation, younger voters who are far less deferential than their parents and grandparents to existing political structures and lineages. Surely one thing the current crop of older politicians seeking re-election must wonder when they wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night is whether these younger voters connect with their personalities and promises, and even if they do can they be bothered to vote?
All in all, then, the view from afar is that the forthcoming election is a difficult one to call. What makes it all the more interesting is that in recent weeks the respective leaders of the MMM and Labour Party coalition are no longer quite so confident about their prospects. Boasts of winning 60-0 are less frequent now, as adjustment is made to the rapid clustering of opposition forces around Sir Anerood Jugnauth (who despite his advanced age still commands respect among sections of the electorate for his past achievements and combative campaigning style), and the uncertain and lukewarm attitude of many towards the proposed changes to the Constitution. The fear is that such a change could have significant and unintended consequences for the future governance and, therefore, the economic prosperity of Mauritius.
Amid all the uncertainty though, one thing is certain – “Politics,” as the late British political journalist Alan Watkins often observed, “is a rough old trade.”
Dr Sean Carey is honorary senior research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester