By Sada Reddi
The choice of candidates in an election, rather than being the arbitrary choice of the party leadership, is in fact an interplay of various factors, namely personality profile, gender, ethnicity, religion, ‘jati’, pressure from different lobbies coming from the electorate itself, and even shockingly but not articulated publicly – colour of skin and phenotype
How do mainstream parties select candidates for by-elections and general elections? This is a topic which is under-researched in our political history. Party leaders and those who fight elections are well aware of the various factors which go into the selection of candidates, but the public knows very little about its intricacies. Given the fact that local constituency party organisations have formally little say in the final choice of candidates, the actual selection exercise is shrouded in opacity. As a result, we have to content ourselves with the generalisation that candidates are normally selected according to their personal profile as well as their ethnic, religious and jati (sub-caste) identities to conform to the profile of their respective constituencies. To this, we must also add a new emerging phenomenon: the poaching of rival parties’ candidates for an election.
While these factors are certainly true, the process leading to the final slate of candidates in a general election is much more complex. In case ‘the wrong choice’ is made from the perspective of the electorate, it can spell disaster for the candidate and the party. The recent choice of a candidate for the No. 7 by-election was considered so inappropriate by a section of the electorate that the candidate was disowned by the party supporters right on Nomination day. To pre-empt an electoral disaster, the concerned party has apparently chosen to avoid having to fight – it is now certain there will not be any by-election, and we are consequently most likely to go for general elections in December or even earlier.
In the absence of reliable data about the choice of candidates, I will draw on my own personal experience to provide a few facts, albeit limited in scope, but which can provide further insights into how candidates are sometimes or can be selected.
When I was going to be a candidate for the elections of 1976, almost every Monday, a member of the then intelligence service, the Special Branch, would on his way to report to the Chief Inspector (who resided in my neighbourhood), inquire from me about which constituency I had been assigned to. I deliberately misled him into reporting that it was to be Mahebourg even though I was well aware it was not going to be so. It’s probably based on that piece of information or rather misinformation that the Labour Party, particularly Sir Harold Walter, brought in Liverdarajagopal Gooriah, a barrister, to be one of his running mates in the elections. Meanwhile, I had moved to constituency No. 13 (Riviere des Anguilles/Souillac), and both Labour candidates in constituency No. 12 (Mahebourg/Plaine Magnien) were defeated.
On another occasion, some time before the elections of 1976, I accompanied a prospective woman candidate on a reconnaissance tour in constituency no 13. But a week after, I heard voices raised in local party organisations and amongst the electorate against her candidature; there were even disparaging remarks regarding her dress, gender and her supposedly urban profile, and she ultimately had to be shifted to an urban constituency.
The last example relates to an incident in 1982. A relative brought a candidate to my place about a problem of candidature. He had hoped to stand as candidate in Stanley-Rose-Hill, but finally it was Jayen Cuttaree who was chosen. He wanted to move to Riviere des Anguilles/Souillac but there was opposition to his candidature since it was not considered necessary to have someone of his particular profile for the 1982 elections. What he wanted from me were some arguments to convince the party leadership to allow him run for the elections from Rivière des Anguilles-Souillac. He must have convinced the party leadership for he was eventually selected for that same constituency and luckily he got elected. He had had a bright political career until he lost his magic wand and retired to the cave.
The above examples show that the choice of candidates in an election, rather than being the arbitrary choice of the party leadership, is in fact an interplay of various factors, namely personality profile, gender, ethnicity, religion, jati, pressure from different lobbies coming from the electorate itself, and even shockingly but not articulated publicly – colour of skin and phenotype. I am obviously referring to mainstream parties. Remember when a priest complained publicly that there was not a creole representative in Stanley/Rose-Hill, one party responded positively by immediately adding another candidate of the appropriate profile to its list of candidates for the 2010 elections.
‘diamond cuts diamond’
In modern times, whatever their merits or weaknesses, candidates are rarely chosen as individuals in their own right to represent their parties at elections. At one moment, the criterion for MMM candidates might have appeared to belong to either the working, lower or middle class, but it was always supplemented by other non-secular criteria. The Labour Party had gone through a similar transformation by 1953, and went even further to accommodate the jati criteria in response to its rival, the IFB. This is why certain candidates would hardly contest elections in certain constituencies. In the post-independence period, the argument advanced by the MMM to transcend the secular criteria was that ‘diamond cuts diamond’, but it was soon forgotten that it was initially intended to be a temporary strategy but which became an entrenched and permanent feature of national politics as the MMM inched towards becoming a mainstream party.
At the present moment, what is emerging is the phenomenon of poaching of candidates from a rival party for general elections. Poaching of party agents on the eve of an election, which is another feature of money politics, is well known. In the past MLAs had crossed the floor for a number of reasons and were discredited by the electorate. That members of a party who express disagreement with the party line and choose to join a rival party is quite legitimate, but what is new and shocking for many is that candidates who had not publicly voiced any grievance whatsoever about their respective parties and who were already on the campaign trail for weeks decide, out of the blue, to join a rival party. It is not surprising that the whole affair smacks of dirty money politics in the eyes of the electorate. That is particularly so amongst the young who are increasingly looking for more morality in our electoral practices.
Henceforth, for all mainstream parties, candidates’ profiles have had to match the socio-demographic profiles of the different constituencies. Constituencies in Mauritius have different demographic profiles partly for historical reasons but also as a result of the way constituency boundaries have been drawn up. At present, we are inclined to divide the constituencies of Mauritius into rural and urban constituencies. That is a crude oversimplification. Each constituency has its own specificities, and to ignore them can be fatal to the electoral success of a mainstream party. We may even venture some broad generalisations.
For example, the northern and eastern constituencies are different from the southern constituencies; factors which determine the choice of candidates in these areas will be slightly different. Similarly, Vacoas-Floreal, La Caverne-Phoenix and Port Louis North-Montagne Longue may share some common features which explains partly the victory of the Independence Party in the 1967 elections.
Finding the appropriate candidate profile to correspond with the socio-demographic profiles of the different constituencies has become a habitus in the party strategy and in our electoral system and the exceptions in the mainstream parties are very few. A few leftist parties continue to battle against this hard reality with very little success while the few ex-MMM candidates who wish to join the mainstream parties have had to adhere to this humiliating profiling. The attention we draw to these criteria in the selection of candidates does not mean that even with the right candidate profiles, electoral success is assured, for rival parties usually resort to the same strategy, which means that electoral success must be explained by a number of other factors.
Some of those factors which come into play are the party programme, party leadership, past performance and future policies, issues regarding the economy, corruption, nepotism, morality, law and order, etc. In the absence of any study, no one can say for certain what weight can be given to each of these factors. At one moment, the alliance of two major blocs was supposed to ensure victory; it happened in 1991,1995, 2001 and in 2010 but not so in 2005 or in 2014.
When all is said about the selection and profiling of candidates, not all candidates carry the same weight with the electorate. Barring the elections with 60-0 score, differences in the personalities of candidates still matter and this explains why some candidates manage to get elected even in wave elections which their party had lost. For incumbency parties, it is much more difficult to present a new slate of candidates; for a minister or an MLA who fails to secure his or her nomination or has been shifted to a new constituency will be regarded as an acknowledgement of failure of his/her ministership but also of the government’s while opposition parties have a wider leverage to present the best teams for an election. This is an advantage not to be trifled with in mainstream politics.
* Published in print edition on 30 August 2019