Mauritius takes a step towards gender equality in politics

By Dr Sean Carey

Mauritius continues to change. The Indian Ocean island, famous for its white coral beaches and azure seas, has come a long way since independence from the UK, in 1968. The transformation of the economy from a reliance on sugar exports to Europe to one that is forecast to grow by 4.1 percent in 2012 through tourism, financial services, business outsourcing and high-end fashion products continues despite the economic turbulence affecting most of the advanced economies.

Some local commentators argue about how Mauritius should best position itself in the global economy as power shifts from West to East and elsewhere – for example, should it stay with its traditional trading partners in Europe, should it seek to forge new alliances among the growth economies of Asia, or should it try and do both? Unsurprisingly, the last seems to be the favourite option at the moment. Nevertheless, the ethnically diverse country of 1.3 million people maintains an excellent reputation with outside agencies, including Moody’s which recently reaffirmed its “investment-grade credit status.”

But change in economic activities is not the only game in town. Because of cross-cutting ties of social class, kinship and ethnicity, the country, which boasts a free press and independently-owned radio stations (though no independently-owned, local television stations), is one of the liveliest democracies in the world.

Now gender has become part of the formal political mix. As of January 1, a new gender law specifies that at least one-third of candidates in local elections must be women. Elections, which are held every five years, are due in April.

Whereas in larger countries like the US and UK, local representatives are often remote and have an abstract relationship with electors, this is not the case in Mauritius, which measures 787 square miles. Customary expectations ensure that routine face-to-face encounters and public meetings in the capital, Port Louis, and other towns and villages are an important part of the way politics is conducted — including how support for parties and political leaders is measured.

In his New Year address, the Mauritian Prime Minister, Dr Navinchandra Ramgoolam, welcomed the change to the electoral system: “We must ensure that the number of women candidates rises considerably,” he said. Currently, around 6.5 percent of local councillors are women, so an increase in their number in the near future is almost inevitable.

However, the Dublin and London-educated Prime Minister has been more circumspect as to whether changes at the local level should be rolled out for general elections. At the moment, 13 out of 70 deputies in the Mauritian parliament are women, but only two of them have made it to the 25-strong Cabinet.

Why the reluctance to push for further reforms? This is where economics and politics come together in Mauritius. The reduction in long-term average economic growth of around 6 percent has had a significant impact on the fortunes of the main political parties as most sections of the population, especially the middle class, come under pressure. Last year, the coalition government made up of Dr Ramgoolam’s Labour Party and the MSM of Pravind Jugnauth split. Along with the MMM, currently the country’s second largest political grouping, led by veteran leader, Paul Berenger, one of the few Franco-Mauritians publicly active in the political sphere, the three main parties are positioning themselves in an attempt both to keep their supporters happy and options for a future coalition open.

With a general election not due until 2015, my guess is that no leader of any of the main political parties will take the time and effort to introduce any new reforms that affect the country’s government, including furthering gender equality, until global economic stability returns and GDP increases significantly.

The cultural, social and economic structures of affluence and consumer culture are often legitimately questioned by critics in the world’s advanced economies. In a Middle-Income country like Mauritius, prosperity may not be a sufficient condition, but it is almost certainly a prerequisite, for progress in gender equality.

 A version of this article has also appeared at AnthropologyWorks

Dr Sean Carey is visiting lecturer in the Business School, University of Roehampton

* Published in print edition on 13 January 2012

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