The Politics of Instability

The die is cast. The PMSD decided Monday last to quit the government. The eleven elected members of the PMSD resigned collectively.

It was said that the government’s intention to have the Prosecution Bill passed while also amending the Constitution to this effect was the reason for the PMSD’s breakaway. The event represents a major setback for the government.

Besides, it is clear that, unless the government manages to now obtain a sufficient number of defectors from the opposition – in order to have the required majority of 52 to amend the Constitution so as to give effect to the Constitutional amendment – this piece of legislation will most likely be shelved. If so, both the Bill and the government alliance will be gone for no evident gain.

The government’s intention to have the Bill enacted by the last sitting of the Assembly this year will thus not happen, at least not soon enough. In practical terms, it means that the government’s objective to subject to the scrutiny and care of a three retired judges’ panel each decision of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to go ahead with or not to prosecute cases brought to it, will not now come into effect. Time will tell whether the government will be able to canvass the necessary support from among the Assembly’s members later to revive its action in this regard.

It must be said that the decision of the PMSD not to caution the government’s attempt to amend the Constitution in this respect was received with a sigh of relief in the general public, as well as by people in the legal profession and many in the political class who had seen it as an attempt to trespass the country’s Constitutional set-up. Moreover, the PMSD’s decision was seen as a display of courage to leave the comforts of high office on the part of a political party which was being projected publicly as an opportunist clinging to power to the extent it could. Only the future will tell whether it was solely the element of conviction that dictated the PMSD’s exit.

The PMSD’s decision has opened up speculation about potential political alliances. The government has been losing support for quite some time now. It has had a strong track record of mishandling matters. One Minister has been suspended for alleged involvement in a potential bribery case. Another one saw his private banking transaction regarding a Euro loan he would have secured from the State Bank of Mauritius disclosed in public. Another Minister went to make a statement against the Finance Minister’s senior adviser to the police, despite the Finance Minister openly declaring his support for the senior adviser’s action in the matter.

Symptomatic of poor leadership, certain Ministers have been doing things at cross purposes with each other. A Cabinet Minute was amended after the original had been approved and circulated in the context of the disputed Heritage City project. The latest in the series is the decision by Showkutally Soodhun, a Vice-Prime Minister, to absent himself from the last sitting of the Assembly because someone else would be getting a promotion which he thought he deserved. Lack of cohesion of decision-making and immaturity are evident.

Things haven’t been better on the economic front. Bad signals were given almost at the very beginning of the government’s mandate to the effect that it could change the rules of the game to get to its objectives. This kind of action hasn’t been well received in the business sector. That would partly explain why the economy has under-performed in the past two years with hardly a significant breakthrough by way of path-breaking private investments having a multiplier effect on the economy. It is true that the overall morose international environment hasn’t, on its part, helped to grow the economy either.

The projected number of new jobs has therefore not materialised. The government has cast the burden of significant jobs growth on to the next year. It has stated that with the start of new projects like the Metro Express, road construction and other major infrastructure projects to be undertaken, the employment sector will be better off as from next year. This might come about – even though one doesn’t have a precise idea of the actual magnitude of job creation – but there has come in between the PMSD’s decision to quit.

With this in mind, the question is whether the political situation is considered stable enough to encourage favourable investment decisions. Who are the defectors who will change sides? Which new alliances will be formed in view of the next elections? How much time will it be before the next elections? Will the government be able to hold together and deliver on its mandate, or will failure to do so precipitate its fall and provoke early elections?

It is against a similar anticipated unstable political situation that the L’Alliance Lepep government was voted to power: the electorate was hugely concerned by Constitutional changes that were being proposed by the Labour-MMM alliance during the 2014 electoral campaign. They did not want to take such a risk. Any alternative with even a semblance of credibility was better than the Constitution-amending Labour-MMM alliance. The irony is that Lepep is currently finding itself alienated from many of those who supported it in December 2014 for the very reason they suspect that it, in turn, is getting the Constitution amended for private political reasons.

As a result, political instability has set in again. It is not known who, or which political alliance will emerge as the government’s challenger, and whether there would be any reason to believe that the same self-seeking agenda will not surface to render politics unstable again. It would be a pity if, once more, instead of concentrating on our immediate priorities such as beefing up the economy, we would continue with the perpetual electoral campaigning mode which appears to have become the norm for decades now.

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Where we stand

Beyond the legal and constitutional implications in relation to the Prosecution Commission as proposed by the Lepep government, there is another dimension that, in our view, overrides all other considerations.

Sada Reddi and Jocelyn Chan Low, both historians, refer in today’s issue of this paper, to the debates that took place during the Lancaster Conference of 1965 where constitutional safeguards were negotiated by the leaders of the PMSD of Jules Koenig with a view to ensuring that the democratic principles enshrined in our Constitution, namely the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual – protection of right to personal liberty/from deprivation of property/of freedom of conscience, of expression, of freedom of assembly and association, etc., could not be tampered with without a three quarters parliamentary majority. Deborah Brautigham refers to those concerns in her study: ‘Coalitions, Capitalists, and Credibility: Overcoming the Crisis of Confidence at Independence in Mauritius’ – ‘The business class, dominated by ethnic minorities, believed that the election of a Hindu majoritydominated, socialist government posed a grave threat to their

interests. The new government needed to establish a compromise with the business class that would stop capital haemorrhaging from the country.’ It was thus that, besides the other constitutional safeguards agreed upon by all the leaders of the Mauritian parties present at the Conference, the posts of DPP and Commissioner of Police were also given constitutional protection.

That those safeguards have served Mauritius well is beyond doubt, and this has largely to do with the calibre and the democratic mindset of the men that commanded the Ship of State down the years. The circumstances are largely different in present-day Mauritius. All those constitutional safeguards and other provisions (including the Best Loser system) that have contributed in no small measure to keep the country together and ensure its economic viability – and success – are more than ever crucial for the harmonious development of the country. That is especially so when there is around ever the risk of an unpredictable lot which is not averse to riding roughshod over democratic norms and principles for the sake of political expediency and private political interests.

We all have an interest in maintaining a just equilibrium between the different centres of power in our society. Disequilibrium breeds instability. It is not about who is sitting in the DPP’s chair and his political affinities – the incumbent’s track record has demonstrated that his Office can be objective in its determination of cases concerning both Navin Ramgoolam and Maya Hanoomanjee. Nor is it about helping the Labour leader to extricate himself from his legal entanglements – he is sufficiently capable of doing that himself. Just as it is also necessary to protect the right of trade unionists and other leftists to voice their opinions and concerns about the formulation and conduct of public policy (even if one may not subscribe to their viewpoints), lest unelected but financially powerful lobbyists hold sway over the affairs of the State and get to dictate the public agenda. One should not forget in that respect that trade-unionism and socialist movements have been since the late 1930s the springboard towards a fairer Mauritius.

What is salutary in the current crisis is that whenever there is a palpable threat of disruption of our democracy, concerned stakeholders from all sectors of our society come forward to counter the threat. This is testimony to the robustness of our democracy: something that surely any genuine politician would welcome.

M.K.

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