Mauritius Exceptionalism: Tread carefully

Numerous academic studies have been undertaken to explain the factors that have contributed to Mauritius successfully overcoming the local constraints present at the time of Independence, and moving on to earning down the years its status as a “development superstar” when benchmarked against such indicators as stable democracy, social welfare and equity amongst others. In one such study – ‘Coalition, Capitablists, and Credibility’ – Deborah Brautigam of the School of International Service, American University, provides valuable insights into how Mauritius has proved to be the exception in most of the developing world by being able to solve the “puzzle of governing for broad-based prosperity”.

Four factors, according to Brautigam, explain the “exceptionalism” of Mauritius and upon which the “coalition for development” that was painstakingly negotiated after the divisive elections of 1967 rested, because they fostered a sober realisation that the country needed to either unify, or sink. They were: exceptionally well-educated leaders; societal support from a free media, new civic associations and even the Catholic Church; transnational networks which provided the ideas (Fabianism socialism, export processing zones and resources) that created concrete hope for the future; systemic vulnerability or the absence of resources or geopolitical patrons, a price-volatile monocrop, and climatic conditions.

There are no doubt other enabling factors which have allowed the successive, mostly cross-societal, coalition governments to successfully overcome both local and external constraints and achieve broad-based prosperity. Additionally, one should not fail to highlight the live-and-let-live, tolerant nature of the majority of the people which have helped to grease the difficult social and political processes in the country – as much as the private sector’s commitment to support the government’s employment-intensive development strategy over the years.

But there is also, as Brautigam points out in her study, the willingness of the then political elites to be bound by the rules and not being inclined to tamper with the institutional or constitutional frameworks: “One of the sad realities of good institutions is that many of them have been transferred or introduced from environments where they have worked poorly, or were quickly abandoned. For example, many developing countries were bequeathed carefully negotiated electoral systems and political parties at independence, but jettisoned them shortly afterwards for presidential and single-party systems.”

These comments are particularly relevant today and come out as opportune words of caution at this juncture in the country’s political evolution – when the political leadership seems inclined to reengineer our electoral system and the constitutional framework especially with regard to the power-sharing arrangements between the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister, to meet what appear to be short-term political objectives.

That coalition politics and power-sharing political dispensations (driven by a senior partner with a controlling majority to ensure stability and predictability) have worked relatively well for Mauritius down the years – mostly by easing potentially ethnic polarisation – and will likely remain a sine qua non for future political stability for many more years is undeniable. But we would do well to tread carefully.

The ethnic divide is very much present in our political environment as electoral behaviour at the polls since 1967 to this day indicate. There are no signs pointing to its abatement. More worrying, however, there are even risks instead that an assemblage of ethnic-based ‘groupuscules’ may wreak damage to our fragile polity with the introduction of Proportional Representation even if fixed at a lower-than-10% threshold.

There is as yet no definite indication that the MMM leader would have reached the end of his tether. It would be frivolous to assume this on the basis of his failure to put up, this week, a unified parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition front against the present government. But it would seem that the ‘PMSD-2014’ of Xavier Duval – just like the FCM of Jocelyn Gregoire – would like to think so. The 2-3%-strong PMSD has announced its intention, at its Congress, last Sunday, to go and hunt back the anti-independence 44% of the 1967 elections on the strength of a “meritocracy” electoral plank.

It has not been reported by the media as to whether the ‘PMSD-2014’ leader affirmed that he had applied the meritocracy criterion in the designation and appointment of the PMSD cronies who have populated or even headed State institutions during his tenure in government in the last ten years. But that kind of language strikes a chord with on-and-off propaganda of the erstwhile votaries of the so-called “malaise créole” – depending upon who is leading the government but inevitably absent when the leader of the MMM is sitting on government benches.

While the communal – or ‘communautariste’ – undercurrent running through our politics has expressed itself more or less benignly through the ballot in the general elections, the hotchpotch of groups seeking to coalesce into a 44% likeness carries the real risk of turning that benign current into a fierce communal polarisation that can only harm the country. The protagonists of this move(ment) had better weigh carefully what they are up to, and it would serve the country better if they were to heed Deborah Bautigam’s meticulous analysis, and be guided by it in their future actions so as to safeguard the integrity of the country, and not lose all that has been laboriously built up – by all citizens – in a communal conflagration, which is the last thing we need at this stage of our development.

* Published in print edition on 27 June 2014

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