Local councils can do better


Wednesday 21st November was Nomination Day for municipal elections in Mauritius. A lot of hustle and bustle preceded the finalisation of candidates by the two major political alliances. In the case of the MMM-MSM alliance, certain potential candidates, not satisfied at not having been designated to stand for election, simply chose to defect to the other side. In the case of the Labour-PMSD alliance, it appears the PMSD has fought hard to get its potential candidates through.

Overall, therefore, it looks as if there is strong and competing interest on the part of party followers to get into a municipal seat.

The new local council legislation requires political parties to nominate not more than two-thirds same sex candidates. The effect of this provision has been to increase the number of women candidates being fielded by each one of the two major political blocks – over 30 each out of the total of 90.

Other than ensuring a larger representation of women in local councils, this legal provision has the potential to refresh representation at the cost of old hands in municipal councils who would have preferred to maintain their long tenures. Refreshing also comes from the fact that, contrary to the past, members of the National Assembly are not allowed now to stand for municipal elections. They have to make way for new members to come in. Moreover, one or two parties not forming part of the two major political alliances have also joined the fray and it cannot be ruled out that they might walk away with some seats on their own and bring in their own chemistry into the municipal make up.

The race for elections due on 9th December has already started. About 400,000 voters will decide for the five municipalities. The fast-tracking of this race was apparent before the nomination of candidates on Tuesday last.

The MMM-MSM which had finalised its list of candidates earlier has been seen campaigning over more than two weeks now. Its main claim is that voters should clean up municipal councils of their alleged long-standing inefficiency and excesses by voting for its own candidates. It has stated that a victory on its part would usher in anticipated general elections.

On the other side, the Labour-PMSD alliance which made public its list of candidates on Nomination Day, has been betting on voters deciding to support candidates of the government in power which has three years before the end of its current mandate. It is leaning on the public’s perception that there would be a better synergy between government and municipal councils standing on the same side of the fence.

We have had efficient local administration in the past when councillors showed a lot of dedication to keep improving the standing of the wards under their stewardship. However, of late, this kind of achievement has been the exception rather than the rule in local administration. The development aspect has suffered. For example, successive municipal councils and governments have failed over more than a decade to address firmly the chaotic state of affairs with street hawkers invading streets and public places in our major towns.

It appears that political trade-offs prevented the take-off and necessary transformation of our towns into more convivial locations for city and town dwellers and visitors. The development of soft social infrastructure such as promotion of arts, entertainment and culture did not progress, at least not visibly enough to evoke from citizens the kind of personal and spiritual uplift one would have experienced in a place like Vienna renowned for its philharmonic orchestra and its famed concerts.

We did not go in the direction of giving our towns and city the distinguishing vocations by which the likes of London, Paris, New York and many others are better known the world over. Increasingly, our towns and city got married to single vocations of being mere pass-throughs without going deeper than sheer existence. Yet, our vocation in the hospitality sector warranted that we should have moved firmly in this direction since long. Our urban centres did not take advantage of our history and diverse cultural backgrounds to keep citizens rooted into cultivating the more sublime aspects of life rather than letting some citizens slip into destructive things like drugs and crimes.

What kind of leadership prevented them from doing better? Was it a shortage of drive and commitment? Was it a shortage of ideas and initiative? Was the municipal team not cohesive enough to put the well-being of citizens above its own? Did an average weak calibre of councillors force councils to limit their sights to trivial power-seeking and infighting rather than achieving the greater purpose for which they were elected? Did the municipal councils have sufficient autonomy to decide and implement their decisions concretely? Was the time horizon of municipal councillors too short term for them to contemplate giving the cities they represent the span and breadth of development they called for? Did members of municipalities consider their positions to be simple sinecures? Was it a shortage of funds that prevented realisation of projects?

We don’t know whether it was a combination of all these factors that has resulted in the general state of apathy we have been seeing over such a long period. Our urban centres deserved better. If someone is responsible for this state of under-development of the fine arts, music, sports, transport, etc., it is certainly not a single government. Someone had to start the development process for the successors to be forced to follow the track left behind to give citizens a more enriching life and surely something better than what we have.

It is futile therefore to cast the blame for municipal non-performance in these respects on a single government. If the major political parties were to write down municipalities as a mere passage to retaining or securing political power, they would be reneging on the fact that local administration was contemplated rather as a government of proximity, leaving it to the centre to deal with broader national policies. Too much focus on power at the national level has cast local administration on the sidelines. Nearly half of the country’s population which lives in the municipalities and hundreds of thousands of daily visitors are thus deprived the plenitude of the splendour that well-planned towns and the city should have offered to all in the ordinary course of business. We ought to give them back their “lettres de noblesse”.

* Published in print edition on 23 November 2012

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