The last general election in Great Britain gave no clear majority to any one of the three traditional political parties. It was a question of forming a government through the coalition of two out of them.
The coming together of Labour and the Conservatives for this purpose was not at issue at all in this context despite the economic crisis hitting hard the British economy. The counter-weight on the other side of the House had to be strong to keep the government on its toes. Rather, the two major parties of the UK discussed extensively, by turns, with the Lib Dems with a view to forming a post-electoral coalition.
The Lib Dems finally found that they had a better chance of carrying through their party agenda with the Conservatives. It was not a question of numbers in the House on either side of it but rather a matter of conviction on how best the parties getting together will be able to fulfil the expectations of their distinct electorates. Addressing Britain’s economic and social agenda weighed uppermost in the scales in the formation of this government. Despite failing to secure their objective to achieve an ‘alternative voting system’ in a pre-agreed post-coalition referendum and despite their increasing loss of popularity due to high fiscal austerity introduced by the coalition government, the Lib Dems are sticking together with the Conservatives to carry out the government’s agenda. They may fail to achieve what they have set out to do but the will to go ahead despite setbacks will show whether we have a ‘strong’ government in front of us.
This model shows that sheer numbers on either side of the House are not the uppermost consideration in the formation of strong governments to run the affairs of the country. In our case in Mauritius, it has frequently been assumed that the greater the numerical dominance of the government against the opposition, the more readily the government would be able to perform on its agenda. This is of course not true. There have been various numerically strong governments since 1982. Such governments have not necessarily delivered what was most needed to advance the country’s fundamental agenda. Equally, they may not be qualified as strong governments where they have not actually proceeded to do their business with a real sense of purpose directed towards improving the general platform.
Many chose to ramble around key issues and postpone decisions that needed to be dealt with at once. This is the case with the electoral reform currently being hotly debated by the different political parties as though it is the be-all-end-all of national concerns. None of the so-called strong governments has dealt effectively to ensure a transparent, corporate-influence free financing of political parties. None has dared take measures to keep to a minimum the proliferation of small crimes when this was still at the controllable stage. This phenomenon has now escalated, by a process of deterioration of a once strong national character, to the point of posing a threat to the security of the country. None has acted to prevent individual politicians from unduly intruding into and interfering with the independent operation of the Civil Service and the parastatal sector. Such governments have also not been effective enough to arrest the proliferation of drug abuse in the country. They have not even made directly accountable public servants who have abused their authority to massively undermine public institutions at great loss to the nation. It will not surprise Mauritians if they were told that, instead of pursuing those higher goals of national advancement, many of the so-called strong governments have indulged in so much of micro-management that they have lost the strings of the main theme of national consolidation.
The lack of resoluteness of leaders and narrowing down of the wider embrace of issues of national concern has been one major flaw of so-called numerically strong governments. Obviously, strides have been made in the right direction on occasion but that was more often the consequence of a deeper vision of a few only among the politicians and a handful of high quality civil servants motivating the decisions rather than an expression of the numerical strength of the governments in place. Instead of focussing on the bigger issues, many of the so-called strong governments have concentrated on the preservation of political power. This is a field where making one compromise too many can topple governments at the next round. The series of successive alternative coalitions we have seen over past decades is a true reflection of this situation. In the process, the main agenda has been drowned by side issues that have been blown out of proportion the time of an electoral campaign.
There have been examples of governments which do not command large majorities in the House but that have actually delivered. They have even managed to be voted with a greater majority at the next elections. Why? When a large part of the population is convinced about government action, it will constantly back such a government. This kind of public support acts as a spur for strong governments to continue on their tracks no matter what amount of criticism they keep receiving from the opposition on small matters. Their job is not to deviate from their focus on government action. This carries conviction with the people that, whichever compromises the government is making in its measures, its main line of command will not be departed from. It will keep targeting the public interest, while maintaining the economy on an even keel. It will not tilt from one extreme to another simply to make sure that it will not offend partners or risk losing the next elections.
There are quite a lot of differences of political approach between the Conservatives and Lib Dems of the UK, for example; however, having agreed to pursue a common set of objectives, none of them will sacrifice the higher common agenda for which they agreed to join their hands in the coalition government. By contrast, parties joined together in our own so-called strong coalition governments have frequently preferred to pull out their own chestnuts from the fire when they have seen that the going is likely to be rougher for them at the next elections. One can hardly qualify this kind of in-built instability as ‘strong’, by any standards.
In reality, it is the circumstances that have made ‘strong’ governments emerge in Mauritius from time to time. The widespread poverty and wretchedness that characterised the 1930s led to the emergence of Labour. The fight for independence reinforced it in the late 1960s. The serious economic difficulties of the 1980s propelled the MSM-Labour-PMSD government of those days to rise to the occasion. Similarly, the threats looming on the global economic horizon today have the potential to raise another strong government that acts to insulate us from the constant threat of under-diversification of the economic base and market access we are increasingly being confronted with. In other words, the launching pads of strong governments enjoying a wide degree of public support for their sincere work to lift up the economic and social platforms of the country are at hand. It is for parties to execute the deeper agenda of the country as a whole without any let or hindrance. All you need is ingenuity and the indomitable will of the leadership to assert and prove itself.
* Published in print edition on 27 January 2012