When the MSM broke away from the Alliance de l’Avenir a few weeks back, against the backdrop of the MedPoint affair, it was the MMM which started calling the shots.
It was not outright clear as to the majority that the government commanded in the House. After the defections of two MSM members from their party and their decision to join the ranks of the government, the government’s majority became better defined. The MMM immediately started seeking the views of the two other major political parties of the country on the subject of electoral reform as if it was the priority of the moment. Both Labour and the MSM obliged promptly. The eagerness that was shown by both of them to discuss the issue could be differently interpreted.
In general, the public was under the impression that the reduced majority of Labour would be comforted if the MMM was open to the question of not only discussing electoral reform but political alliance as well. Meetings between Paul Bérenger and Navin Ramgoolam started being interpreted in the light of a possible rapprochement between the two parties, not necessarily to tackle the issue of electoral reform. In the public’s mind, the latter, to the extent it materialised in some form or other, would be an excuse solely for cautioning the speculated political alliance. It may be recalled that MMM-Labour negotiations to go together at the last general election had been called off nearly on the eve of Nomination Day. Mr Bérenger had besides adopted quite a conciliatory tone towards Labour since after the elections and many suspected that his new demarche could have been a ploy to get back into negotiations for an alliance with Labour in replacement of the others in the government.
As for the MSM, it had no alternative than to make efforts to hold its followers together by telling them that all was not lost after all and that a possible alliance with the MMM could open the doors for them to power once again. It must be recalled that many so-called marginal supporters of political parties in Mauritius hope and pray for the party they support to be in power as soon as possible in order to use the occasion to skim off personal and group advantages. If power is seen to be a far-off perspective, such followers easily shift allegiance publicly and try to cling to others who are actually in power or likely so to be in the near term. Loyalty is variable depending on the power equation for such individuals/groups who have keenly positioned themselves to draw advantages for themselves. It was left to the MSM to play its card along this view. Its meetings with the MMM were intended to convey comfort to relevant party followers that power would not be far off.
By getting the keen attention of the leaders of both Labour and the MSM, the Leader of the Opposition appeared to be riding on a wave of popularity. The MMM’s followers suddenly saw themselves in a position of strength. Mr Bérenger himself spoke about electoral reform as if it were a take-it-or-leave-it issue for making or unmaking commonalty of political views. The MMM’s Secretary-General proclaimed it loud and clear that his party was being actively courted by the two main parties, understandably for a potential political alliance and that its agenda for securing electoral reform stood every chance of going through.
It must have occurred to the Labour leader that one does not negotiate successfully except from a position of strength. He announced after an Executive Committee meeting of Labour this week that electoral reform will have to come at its own pace. In other words, it was not the most pressing issue as it had been given out to be by the MMM leader in the wake of the break-up of the MSM from the Alliance de l’Avenir. This statement has had the effect of taking the steam off the electoral reform agenda. The Labour leader announced on the same occasion that the issue of political alliance was also not on the table. In other words, the mandate of the government goes out for nearly four more years and that, contrary to what the MMM’s leader had been asking for vehemently, there was no call for anticipated elections in view of the recent developments on the political front.
This episode shows that Labour has taken the initiative to tell the Leader of the Opposition that the government remains in command notwithstanding its reduced majority. The PM has also made it clear that the prerogative of deciding on electoral reform does not rest with the MMM or the MSM, alone or together, as any such action will require the concurrence of the government for it to go through. In other words, the government still decides what can go through and what not. This new turn of events should moderate the Leader of the Opposition who has been made to understand in no unclear terms that it is the government which sets the agenda and not the Opposition.
The government is due to present its budget proposals shortly. This is a major decision which sets out the government’s social and economic policies. It is imperative that the measures to be implemented are decided upon from a position of strength in view of the fact that social stability and the economic future of the country are at stake. The private sector has already started coming out with its old attitude of trying to shift the burden of adjustment to the maximum extent possible to everybody except itself if the worst came to the worst. If possible, it would want the government to backtrack on some extremely unpopular tax decisions (which have been given short shrift to since then) the pre-2010 government had taken to alleviate even more the burden of the private sector and pass it on therefore to the rest of the population. They would also like to see currency depreciation as a remedy for their entrepreneurial shortcomings and they are already attributing their insufficient export success to it, blaming the lack of devaluation for the current account deficit as well. As in 2007-08, the private is using the well tried language of scare in view of a possible global economic downturn and its negative implications for Mauritius. In simple terms, it is busy building up the pressure.
In moments such as this, it does not suit a government to be seen to be in a weak position. Neither the private sector nor the members of the government nor public servants having their own obfuscated other-worldly views about local fiscal policy should prevail with their biases. The government should show determination and not be seen to be yielding to forces that have temporarily assumed the appearance of being in a relatively stronger position vis-à-vis the government. The decisions will be those of the government and exclusively so; if they yield the fruits expected from them, there is no reason to fear. There is no reason to dilute decision-taking to please so-and-so either. Decision-taking has to be in the public interest and it is enough that it is perceived to be so for good sense to start prevailing and for everybody to focus on essentials instead of on peripherals.
* Published in print edition on 26 August 2011