When destabilisation changes side

The world economy remains in a weak condition. Our opportunities for doing business with the outside world are therefore fairly limited. Nevertheless, the economy has stayed positive in terms of growth. A small open economy like Mauritius cannot overtake the global ship on which it is travelling.

Irrespective, what may be frustrating the government is the absence so far of concrete economic developments on its part. Like voters, leaders of L’Allians Lepep were hoping to get on briskly with business, thus overcoming the sloth that had characterised the period prior to their coming to power.

Just as in the case of Labour and PMSD in the previous government, the perception was perhaps emerging that the new government would also end up enumerating a number of big projects, such as ‘Ocean Economy’, ‘Bunkering Hub’, ‘Airway Corridor’, ‘Port Development’, ‘Smart Cities’, ‘SMEs’, ‘Education Hub’, etc., but having little to show by way of concrete realisations. This must have led to internal agitation, pushing ever more to the fore some of the turbulent and dashing members of the government. Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo, realistically conscious of the slower inroads an outward-oriented economy like Mauritius could make in a slothful global environment, would thus have become the “empêcheur” needing to be set aside.

It mustn’t have been too difficult to look for reasons why he should be set aside. Offended by the frontal attack he is reported to have faced within the four walls of the Cabinet a month ago, he decided to withdraw into the seclusion of his residence for not less than four weeks. He stated that he was sick with bronchitis and did not attend office since then.

Now, this is an embarrassing position for a government running after projects like “Heritage City”, which involves committing ourselves to meeting the financial and other hidden obligations underlying such a project supported by external financing, to undertake fiduciary commitments of the sort in the absence of a seal of approval from a seemingly prudent Minister of Finance. The government was increasingly feeling the urgency to demonstrate that it was “undertaking” something or other on the economic front at the risk of relegating to the background the platform of ‘second economic miracle’ on which it was voted to power.

It was thus seeking to prioritize the short term if only to show that it was acting. Since the longer-term perspective adopted by the Minister of Finance was not producing immediate results — and he held the relevant portfolio – he had to be put aside. But there were political risks. The government wanted to come out of this episode with a strong image of itself vis-à-vis voters, whatever the consequence.

The government had, in the preceding year, spent a considerable amount of energy and its goodwill, destabilising the leader of the Labour Party, amongst others. It had also given the impression of rendering public policy-making unpredictable by its manner of proceeding with the dismantling the BAI group. In the process, even opposition parties which were seeking an opportunity to slip into the government at first changed tack. One member of a government coalition partner came out recently to openly denounce certain malpractices. It was becoming clearer that voters would not take kindly all this sterile diversion of energy into an unproductive enterprise.

Weakening Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo did not prove that difficult. Towards the end of last week, private banking information about his dealings in September 2015 with the State Bank of Mauritius was suddenly leaked out in public. It concerned a borrowing of 1.1 million euros at a rate of interest of 1.5% pa, with the accrued interest being payable annually. It was given a scandalous flavour with the help of a part of the media.

It’s against such a backdrop that he seems to have been placed in front of a career choice. He agreed, perhaps as a face-saving device, to take on the responsibility for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is clearly a downgrade from the more senior position as Minister of Finance. Thus, it seems, his potential resignation as deputy for Constituency No 7 was averted at the last minute. The Prime Minister himself stepped into the portfolio of Finance.

Uncertainty clouds the environment. The government which started on an exceptionally strong footing is now visited by instability – from inside. Results – especially on the economic front – will decide whether it will ride the storm and keep itself fit to face voters confidently at the next polls. That’s why, it seems, it has had to ‘couper la poire en deux’ in the Lutchmeenaraidoo case. Time will tell whether there will be no further gaffes standing in its way.

If that doesn’t happen – and the MSM keeps up its infighting with Labour as well – Mr Bérenger’s ‘boulevard’ may well be poised for success in a potential three-cornered fight at the next polls.

*  Published in print edition on 18 March 2016

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