In the last week of April, a decision was taken by the Labour Party not to hold a rally on 1st May this year. The reason invoked for this decision was that it was inappropriate to engage in a fiesta and indulge in nonsensical statements from the political rostrum at a time the country was mourning the loss of lives of the 3/30 flood victims. The MMM-MSM alliance and trade unions decided however to carry on with the tradition of pulling up their supporters on this occasion. The MMM-MSM had their rally in Port Louis while the trade unions gathered their followers in Beau Bassin and in the auditorium of the University at Le Réduit, separately. Two minor political parties addressed theirs in Port Louis and Curepipe.
As a result, the customary bipolarisation of supporters by the two dominant political groups lying on either side of the political spectrum did not take place. May Day rallies have traditionally represented a show of force by the major opposing political blocs. The fact that Labour did not hold its own rally this year diluted the usual zero-sum game in which the major blocs neutralize each in the game of numbers of supporters they managed to bring together in their respective bids to show superior mass following. This scenario in which one of the two main protagonists has decided not to summon up its supporters came as something new, emptying the contest of an important challenger. It is not quite clear whether Labour will stick to abstaining from participating in competitive crowd-pulling on this occasion in future. If so, a lot of the folklore that has come about in this mutually intimidating exercise will lose its flavour, with all its bunting of buses, kettle drums, flags, biryani distribution and partying at the seaside after the rallies. It could even take the steam off the opposition parties for want of an adversary to point the finger at.
But let us not speculate too far. Two days before the May Day rallies, l’express-dimanche, a weekly belonging to La Sentinelle Group, published on Sunday the findings of an opinion poll that it had undertaken over the January-March period with the support of DCDM, a consulting firm. In broad terms, the poll found that both Labour and its leader had the highest approval levels among the political parties and leaders, with the MSM (the MMM ally in the current ‘Remake’) coming up with a very poor showing of only a 2% support among voters. On Sunday, when the poll results were published, it was publicly known that Labour had decided not to go for the traditional May Day rally. So, without the need for a rally, the opinion poll had already flagged Labour as a winner. The MMM opposition appeared to be furious at the poll results while a wave of optimism swept into the Labour Party which claimed that its own internal polls mirrored the findings of l’express-dimanche.
The opinion poll published by the weekly is no more than a snapshot taken at a point in time and it reflects intentions of the chosen sample polled up at that particular moment. It is no substitute for a vote, which goes beyond intentions. Moreover, there is sufficient evidence on the ground to prove that voting decisions are not formed cumulatively across the passage of time to a general election. They are often crystallised towards the very end of an electoral campaign, sometimes in the final week before elections are held. That happened nearly on the eve of the 2000 elections when the decision to form an MSM-MMM alliance (called the MedPoint alliance) overturned the situation overnight against Labour which could not quite make out why it had been defeated so heavily in the polls of 2000 contrary to its expectations.
Five years later, on the eve of elections once again, the MSM-MMM had the bitter taste of the same kind of overturning position when Dr Rashid Beebeejaun was presented by Labour as Deputy Prime Minister, the effect of which was to shake up the very foundation of what had heretofore been considered as an MMM stronghold. Political parties have engineered the coming together of unexpected forces at the very last minute to win at elections and this is a truth far removed from what opinion polls can paint at some point of time or other, in the present case two years before the actual polls are taken.
The outcome of elections is also decided on who the protagonists on the two opposing sides of the major political configurations happen to be. The 1st May rally of supporters of the MMM-MSM alliance owes a lot to the presence on the podium of the ailing MMM historical leader, Paul Bérenger. The latter announced a couple of months past that he had been diagnosed with a cancer of the throat and that, while he would be undergoing treatment of the cancer which had been spotted thankfully in its early development stage, Alan Ganoo will succeed him as both party leader and as Leader of the Opposition.
Paul Bérenger, who has come back after undergoing treatment in Paris, addressed the rally. He stated that he will be pursuing treatment in the coming period and that, in consequence of his state of health, the party will have to take a decision as to its leadership in a matter of three to four months from now. In other words, Alan Ganoo will still lead the party until, in the light of the state of health of Paul Bérenger, a decision is taken after the stated period. In the event, if Paul Bérenger’s state of health did not permit him to carry on the roles of party leader and Leader of the Opposition, with the vigour and drive for which he is well known, it will be for Alan Ganoo to succeed. In that case, a possible change of protagonist on the side of the MMM has implications for how national politics will be conducted, what will be the defining differences on the two sides and the fervour with which followers will rally around the party in consequence. Like Nature, politics is averse to vacuums. The personalities of leaders on the opposing sides of the political spectrum have the potential to change the very nature of political confrontation. All this is more relevant to election outcomes than whatever opinion polls state temporarily for the present.
Further, in the coming two years before elections are scheduled, there are risks that the economic situation, swayed by the prevailing depressed economic conditions in our major external markets, can produce upsetting situations in the domestic market, lowering the economic growth rate. With falling demand in major sectors of domestic activity, were unemployment to accentuate as well due to uncertainty surrounding those markets, the exercise of political power may feel its effects. However, convincing action to put the economy back into shape will restore confidence in the management of national affairs.
That requires a host of things to come together: a higher dose of gravity in the political class, sharp decision-making by official cadres and ministers who are up to the task with proven results, policy-making seeing the broader global picture as it evolves and taking actions before it is too late, amongst others. There is little time to get mired in side issues of little national relevance. There is no doubt that these ground economic realities will play an equally important role, let alone the personalities of individual political leaders, to sway voters’ decisions one way or the other. Whatever the fallout of the May Day rallies, it is these more important parameters that will determine how the future will be shaped beyond the fortunes of individual political parties.
* Published in print edition on 3 May 2013