Of Merits and Symbolic Representations

Constitutional Appointments

The last week and this week were dominated by the issue of appointing a successor to Ms Monique Oshan-Bellepeau in the Vice-Presidency of the country. The term of office of the present incumbent having come to a close, it was necessary to appoint her replacement.

To convince voters from as many diverse ethnic groups as possible to vote in favour of the political alliance currently in power, public statements of intent as to who would be appointed to top positions were made. The present government had accordingly announced that the President of the Republic would be chosen from the Muslim community while the Vice President will be from the Tamil-speaking group of the population.

A Tamil-speaking candidate was first proposed, Mr Menon Murday, an MSM candidate fielded in the elections of 10th December 2014 in Constituency No 13 but who was defeated in the elections. There was an element of scuffle around this appointment within the MSM. The Prime Minister expressed his doubts about his competence to be appointed to such an elevated position.

It was decided then to appoint instead Mrs Vidya Narayen, a retired Supreme Court judge, said to belong to the same group as Mr Murday. On Tuesday, this week, Mrs Narayen declined the offer made to her, choosing to remain outside of controversies that her proposed appointment had sparked in this context. After this dignified exit, other names from the same group have been proposed and are under consideration.

The question has been raised in some quarters as to whether it was necessary and imperative to choose someone for this and other high positions from specific ethnic groups. Or, whether, it would have been better to appoint persons of high integrity and personal worth, irrespective of ethnic considerations.

 The point being made was that the Vice President acts for the President in her absence and that a person no less than the Chief Justice of the country was called upon to temporarily assume office in the past in the absence of the incumbent. It’s a high Constitutional post which confers several privileges and advantages on the incumbent. So, the question was raised: wouldn’t it have been good to appoint anyone according to merit instead of out of ethnic considerations?

One should perhaps not jump to the conclusion that, because an appointment at such a level is being made after taking into account the symbolic importance of the incumbent in the country’s kaleidoscope of cultures, that the one being appointed would not also have merits to qualify for the post. It would in fact be in the country’s best interests to choose symbolic representations in high positions of the state from among the best we could have from any specific section of the population.

The stage of development we find ourselves in requires a careful balancing of separate aspirations amongst the different components of the population for posts which are expected to help wrap up our differentiated but common belonging to a nation. One is not speaking here about positions which call for technical excellence of the holder of a post in the public sector for which merit should always have been the overriding criterion.

Certain sensitivities, when properly balanced, help to glue the nation together when it comes to the political leadership of the country and if we depart at this stage from such considerations, we run the risk of creating a sense of unwanted alienation among groups in the population which don’t feel adequately represented at the highest echelons of state politics. There are numerous examples of how the temptation to rule without sharing political power among all the components constituting the nation (e.g., in several countries of the Middle East but just as well in Europe) has been the source of havoc and unending tensions and mutual destruction. We can’t afford such disruption.

 * * *

 ‘Bilan’

Today marks exactly one year from the day election results were announced last year. It may be too early to judge the performance of the government and the opposition at this stage. We don’t propose to do so. We would nevertheless evaluate the work done so far if only to gauge the direction taken so far.

It may be said that, as expected, the government side has not done the miracles it set out for. That may be too early. It has held together however the coalition of the three parties it was hurriedly constituted of almost at the brink of time when elections were knocking at the door.

It goes to its credit that despite the precipitation with which it quickly acted to disband the BAI group in the name of cleaning up, it has nevertheless held together. It concentrated a lot of the time on bringing ignominy on the MSM’s arch-rival, Navin Ramgoolam, something that was well received by its partisans but also by the public in general who had been eagerly looking forward to regime change for different reasons.

Those who are fair minded will have a lot to thank the government for having put behind, through a decisive win at the elections, the danger that the Ramgoolam-Bérenger tandem had represented with their proposal to change the electoral system and to bring in a presidentship of 7 years. That doesn’t mean that other incumbents of power have freed themselves of the temptation to arrogate to themselves plenipotentiary powers. Voters are watching out this tendency as it has set in.

On the economic front, the government has promised that it will work out a “miracle” whereby there should be full employment by 2018. This is being taken with a pinch of salt by observers, given that jobs have rather been lost in the meantime and it is not fully evident where the conviction will come from for investors to confidently undertake the business in the current climate of unpredictability. That there are billions of rupees of idle liquidity lying within our financial system shows that we are not finding the means to gainfully employ those funds. A lot of practical fine-tuning remains to be undertaken by the government, including a massive improvement in its bedside manners, before the “miracle” could start materializing.

The MMM opposition began by splitting itself apart, but the core of the party’s following still appears to be surrounding Paul Bérenger. Whether he will be able to rebuild the party’s unity will depend very much on the party’s traditional followers not finding punch enough in the split-away groups compared with what remains of the MMM. It will also depend on the extent to which Paul Bérenger will be able to discard the flip-flop image of himself he projected during 2014.

The MMM appears to have gained a little of its past credibility as an opposition in the last year. The party’s latest move to align itself on the controversial amendment to the Constitution to accommodate the even more hotly disputable Good Governance and Integrity Reporting Bill has shown however that it might not have given up its bad habit to seek to shift to the next potential coalition. Moves like this show that as it did in 2014, it might again compromise on principles and keep a door open for a possible coalition with the MSM sometime later. But time will tell whether its relentless quest for power will stop it short of becoming a credible challenger in solo and capable to run a government on its own intrinsic strength.

The Labour Party was thrashed at the last polls. It has a representation in Parliament though and Shakeel Mohamed is the only one who appears to have the grit to take on the government from the benches of the Labour opposition. It can score points in the Assembly but its main weakness appears to be coming from outside Parliament. Observers feel that Navin Ramgoolam has lost so much credibility in the eyes of the public that he may not, at least in the present circumstances, be in a position to tilt voters’ preferences in favour of the party.

But politics is a highly volatile thing in Mauritius. Who would have thought that the last minute patch-up of the three parties, the MSM, ML and PMSD, would have won by such a high margin at the last polls? Yet, it happened. Many believe at present that the series of gaffes certain government members are already involved in could be preparing the ground for an alternative government in power. At this stage, all this is mere speculation. Time will tell whether the government will not collect itself and set itself on a better track with results to prove that it is capable of the major overhaul it promised to the population a year ago.

* Published in print edition on 11 December 2015

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