“We should not play casino politics with the future of the people”

Interview: Vijay Ram

“The way this electoral campaign is unfolding, I doubt very much that there would be a Presidential election, whether at one or more rounds

Vijay Ram is a former member of the ‘Comite Central’ of the MMM. After his secondary education at the Royal College Curepipe , he proceeded too graduate in Law at South Bank University, London. Currently he works as Adjudicator at the Tribunals Service, London. Further, he has been a human rights activist throughout his life, militating in the students’ movement, workers’ movement and fighting for the right to the freedom of expression and the press.

He brushes, in this week’s interview, a comprehensive picture of the overt and covert undercurrents that are trailing the unfolding campaign for the forthcoming elections, and makes a pointed analysis of the implications of potential scenario outcomes.

* Dr Vasant Bunwaree, who claims to have been instrumental, together with other party colleagues, in modernising the structures of the Labour Party (LP) in the 2000s, has finally decided to quit the Party – one which he asserts has lost its “values” and “identity”. It’s unlikely that his decision at this late hour would have any significant impact on the electoral fortunes of the LP or that Dr Bunwaree would be riding on the wave of discontent apparently sweeping over a large swathe of Labour supporters. But echoes from the grassroots would suggest that the Party’s alliance with the MMM has sowed confusion and discomfort among Labourites, and the posturings of our “socio-cultural associations” are not helping matters. What do you think?

Vijay Ram: Dr Bunwaree has this week left the Labour Party and has formed the Movement Travailliste Militant. He is clearly unhappy with a lot of things, as much in his political career as in the LP. The latest event in a long series of controversies is without doubt the fact he has not been offered the ticket at No. 12 which he thinks should ‘have naturally been his’ and not that of the son-in-law of the President, Kailash Purryag.

 Why one week before the Nomination Day, one would ask! He seems to have given enough time for a change of heart on his behalf from Dr Navin Ramgoolam, who holds the prerogative of deciding who is ticketable, and who is not. He may have in so doing undermined the influence of an ever-demanding Berenger, a contractual partner to the PM in their project to share power. We will also remember that, just a few days before the Minister of Education tendered his resignation to the President, Mr Berenger had announced that Ajay Gunnesh would occupy the portfolio for Tertiary and Further Education, the Ministry of Education and Human resources being the already reserved terroir of Steven Obeegadoo, also of the MMM. The education sector is thus already taken, but he has enough time to make a decisive move before the 24th of November. He believes he has the ears of a consequent segment of the Labour intelligentsia and electorate. Therefore, a week could be long enough time for the ex-Minister.

The Bunwaree supporters would also be asking why it is that he is among the very few to be ‘nettoyé’ on Berenger’s demand. Is he the most stained, is he the most incompetent, is he the most unelectable? Why him, why not the others whose names have sounded and resounded like mantras in the mouth of Berenger when denouncing scandals and corruption?

Should we read some coincidence in Dr Bunwaree’s political action and the statement of Somduth Dulthamun as to his ‘consigne de vote’? There is a consensual view with a common feeling that links the two moves; one that seems to suggest that the MMM component of the L’Alliance de l’Unite et de la Modernite is to the detriment of the LP.

Vassant Bunwaree sees himself as the architect of the renaissance of what he calls the ‘New Labour’. Since his adhesion to Labour in 1987, he is known by party workers to have been instrumental in the restructuring of the Party, then only surviving as an appendice to the domination of the MSM in a ’Bleu-Blanc-Rouge’ administration under an Anerood Jugnauth leadership. With some new blood like Arvind Boolell and others, he set up the Constituency Labour Party and other regional structures to try and rebuild the LP in waiting for the opportunity to reconquer power. Structures that would benefit the intronisation of Navin Ramgoolam in 1995 and 2005 onwards.

What are those ‘values’ that Dr Bunwaree is referring to? They are nothing new. They have been named as from the year 2000 as ‘la democratisation de l’économie’. During the years of SSR, they took the form of some land reforms and fiscal incentives that permitted pockets of the Labour economic base, mostly planters from villages, to access economic, commercial and business mobility. Faithful to the Fabian school, the Party maintained its attachment to principles of the Welfare State. Is Bunwaree saying that a Ramgoolam-Sithanen-MMM political economy would be moving away from these ideological principles? We will have to wait and see what he has to say in relation to the neoliberal economics of the present red and purple alliance.

The way the government manages today’s industrial conflict between sugar workers and the MSPA will be closely watched.

* What about the confusion and discomfort among Labourites which echoes from the grassroots would indicate and the posturings of our socio-cultural associations?

There is an obvious agitation from the so-called ‘socio-culturals’. We have seen varied positions and consignes given by groups like the Mauritius Sanathan Dharma Temples Federation, the Voice of Hindu, the Federation des Creoles Mauriciens, the Tamil Temples Federation, the Mauritius Marathi Mandali, the Arya Ravived Pracharini Sabha, the Rajput Movement and Muslim organisations.

Most of these organisations have organic links with the rank and file of the mainstream political parties or their leadership. The MMM has during the years moved away from a class-oriented politics to a form of ethno-politics based on what they conceptualise as an alliance of the minorities. This in itself puts a thorn in an alliance of the MMM with any party, but which Berenger sees as a bait to ‘rassurer la communauté hindoue’. The apparent contradiction lies in the inherent theory itself; this explains why the bringing together of ‘les deux plus grands partis du pays’ has brought about the Collendavelloo and Bunwaree dissidence.

Some sections of the Labour rank and file sincerely believe that the prime ministership is not safe in the hands of Paul Berenger and others in the Labaz militant sincerely believe that Navin Ramgoolam is a product of ‘communalisme hindou’. These two systems of beliefs are so entrenched that a LP-MMM alliance creates a feeling of mistrust and confusion. The grassroots is now faced with an overwhelming temptation of ‘Vire Mam’ that they find irresistible.

There is also the reality that the street agents of the Labour Party share an organic existence with the activists of some socio-culturals and that the consigne of some is likely to affect the political behaviour of others. Especially in the context of the Leader asking to disappear to the Reduit with substantive executive powers.

Lobbyism has always been a hallmark of power management within the Labour political tradition. This would have manifested through the corporates, the Church, trade unions, women federations and today mostly through socio-culturals. The confusion, and thus the agitation in the socio-cultural leadership, reflects one apprehension: what would their bargaining power amount to once their political leader is sent to Reduit without having to answer to anybody.

With the project of the Second Republic, there is a feeling that Navin Ramgoolam has achieved ‘d’une pierre deux coups’, he has quietened the leadership and grassroots of the MMM as he has cunningly attached his Projet Presidentiel with some wishywashy electoral reforms. But more importantly, he would sit completely unaccountable to the concept of the separation of powers as we know it, including any party structures of the LP wishing to question his policies. That’s the coup!

* Would the apparent confusion and discomfort among Labourites presently also have to do with lack of ideological clarity or of political consistency? Or is it mostly due to a high degree of doubts about the merits of the LP-MMM alliance or of uncertainty about the future?

There is a genuine concern among the Labour intelligentsia and electorate that Paul Berenger and his MMM may hold overall power in a prospective Labour-MMM government. Their electoral agreement is based on an equal share of 30-30 tickets and 12-12 ministers with an MMM Speaker. Even in a scenario of a 60-0, the balance of power is in the favour of the MMM. It should here be noted that our Parliament consists of a maximum of 70 MLAs. Therefore the weight of the Rodrigues deputies should not be undermined, they may theoretically hold the key as to who forms the government should there be conflict in the LP-MMM camp.

The traditional Labour partisan has historically built up a psyche that Berenger should not be Prime Minister, and this for a variety of reasons. The ethno-politics of yesteryears has resulted in a demonisation the MMM leader to the extent that there is today an entrenched belief among Labour supporters that he wants to ‘tire pouvoir depi dans nou la main’. The followers of the New Labour have over the years portrayed the MMM leader as representing the ‘cousins-cousines’ of the private sector. There is also the belief, in the more recent past, that the personal credibility of PRB has taken a massive plunge, especially during the ‘on-off’ saga. He is today seen, in the eyes of the average intelligent person, as somebody unreliable and untrustworthy.

So, the Labour partisans see themselves today in this rather schizophrenic split; they know they need the MMM to stay in power, while at the same time they would rather get rid of their traditional adversary. The day-to-day difficulty faced by the activists of both parties on the ground explains this split. The electoral campaign has started with this apparent difficulty and even the discourses of speakers at rallies bear the sound of some dissonance. The MMM orators struggling to avoid their hallmark speeches denouncing corruption, scandals and mismanagement of the former administration.

 So, yes there is confusion, mistrust and uncertainty.

 * It would appear that a large swathe of the MMM’s militants are equally at odds with their Party leadership over the latter’s alliance with their long-time adversary-turned ally after decades of mostly acrimonious hostility to each other. Does this undercurrent of discontent among both Labour and MMM supporters mean that elections are not only about electoral arithmetic, which would otherwise suggest a 60-0 win when the two major parties of the island come together, and whatever else that shape electoral behaviour might defeat that arithmetic?

No matter what Berenger says about the personal chemistry between himself and Navin Ramgoolam, no militant is fooled that it still remains a superficial relationship, a conjunctural one. Militants will still remember when their leader denounced NCR’s June display of the ‘girouette’ on the negotiations around the electoral reforms. Recent declarations of Berenger to the effect that he has founded the MMM to continue the ‘oeuvres du PTr’ would have only further humiliated his militants. They know as a fact that their political engagement is one fundamentally anti-PTr.

It’s no surprise that the announcement of the LP-MMM alliance brought about yet another dissidence in the MMM with Ivan Collendavelloo creating the Muvman Liberater. How much of the militant base has shifted is a matter to be weighed during the forthcoming elections. But from what is evident on the social media, the discontent among traditional MMM supporters is very manifest and loud. Whether this would translate into a vote of discontent, we’ll have to wait and see.

I am not to gamble on the arithmetic of the outcome of the coming elections, but electoral alliances bring about both positive and negative dynamics. The figures often cited by ‘les deux plus grands partis’ may not always add up because one will definitely weaken the other. To what extent, this will depend on the dynamics created by the other alliance.

All the polls seem to suggest that there won’t be a 60-0. Should the electorate deny a three-quarters plebiscite, then the political dynamics will become interesting as the LP-MMM electoral agreement is solely based on the assumption that there will be a ¾ plebiscite that would enable them to go ahead their ‘partage du pouvoir au sommet’. This contract will be obsolete should the electorate decide they do not want a constitutional change.

* So what are at stake for the December 10th general elections?

The coming elections are without any doubt the most important since the 1967 elections when we were asked to vote for the independence of Mauritius from the UK. We are today being asked to vote so as to permit the establishment of a presidential regime. From what we have heard so far, it seems we may end up having a President with such powers as to nominate ministers, sack ministers, nominate important constitutional positions, preside over the Cabinet as and when he so decides, and be responsible for external affairs. It seems that executive powers will be thus shifted from the Treasury Building to the Chateau de Reduit.

This will be a fundamental change in the way our Constitutional law will look at the interface of our democratic institutions. To be able to implement these changes, the next government will need a mandate. Therefore the next elections will take the form of a referendum. The LP-MMM alliance who is advocating for such change is presenting the next election as an ordinary legislative election, asking the electorate to vote for programmes, personalities and constituency deputies.

It’s a stealth referendum! Because should they win the majority they need, it is a ‘2e Republique’ we are voting for. Sir Anerood Jugnauth is right when he says that we should treat the elections as a referendum with a choice as to a Yes/No vote. It would be a more healthy contest if the Alliance de l’Unite et de la Modernite would come out clear and ask the electorate to vote for their presidential project. And SAJ and his l’Alliance Lepep asking for a NO vote.

In the event of the LP-MMM winning a majority or better the three quarters, they would legitimately take it that they have been given a mandate to implement their projet présidentiel. The problem then would be how to harmonise the functioning of office of the President and that of the PM. This new phenomenon should be read within the dialectics of our Constitutional law. We have so far only known a Westminster system of government based on such constitutional fundamentals as the sovereignty of Parliament and the doctrine of separation of powers.

If everything runs smoothly, there is no problem to adjudicate on the legitimacy of where the centre of decision lies. But the difficulty will arise when there is difference in appreciation as to who really holds Constitutional power, and this difficulty can be pre-empted knowing what we know of the on-off period.

It will then be left to the rules of Constitutional law to adjudicate, and I can foresee no difficulty as to the direction the courts and tribunals will take. The mandate entrusted by the whole electorate into a person would definitely override that of another person representing only a constituency.

* What happens next, that is should the LP-MMM win the forthcoming elections but fail to reach up to a majority to be able to operationalize their electoral agreement? Navin Ramgoolam staying put in the PM’s Office and Paul Berenger taking things lying down – very much un-Berenger like, isn’t it? – or will the latter go back to another re-Remake with the Jugnauths?

Berenger and Ramgoolam have concocted an electoral contract based on the uncertainties of some conditional provisos. They would only be able to hold their undertaking if they are given a popular mandate of 3/4. They have not thought of a Plan B. Should they not get the infamous target of a ¾ majority, their agreement, signed and mediatised, loses further legitimacy. With a NO vote, Ramgoolam cannot go to Reduit, Berenger cannot be PM and so on and so forth. What are the options left? That’s where the doubts we discussed earlier start to surface. Would the agitation of the socio-culturals push for a Ramgoolam-led government with or without Berenger? Would there be a sharing of two and a half-year prime ministership? Would Berenger accept a 5-year Deputy Prime Ministership? Would Berenger change his mind as to a re-Remake? Would NCR leave a door open as to reconstruct of a ‘Bleu-Blanc-Rouge’ government? Should we need to stay ready for another election rather very soon again? All these are possible scenarios as is the possibility of SAJ-led government.

The 30-30, 12-12 (sharing of electoral seats and ministerial posts respectively), etc., appear to be in favour of Berenger; but once Navin Ramgoolam takes with him to Reduit all powers conferred to him as President, it will then become clearer that it was a game of ‘malin-malin-et-demi’! The lessons from all this saga is that we should not play casino politics with the future of the people.

* What about the provision for a one-round presidential election? It can be safely assumed that it’s quite unlikely that any of the candidates would secure a majority of more than 50% in a widely contested election with a number of ethnic/communal/casteist-based groupings and other smaller parties as well as the LP and MMM in opposition to each other at a later stage. What could be the risks inherent in such a one-round presidential election and its political consequences?

You are absolutely right about the fragility of the outcome of a one-round presidential election. We must put in context; it was on the insistence of Berenger that Ramgoolam consented to this mode of election. The worst-case scenario is that we end up with somebody in Reduit mandated by only 25%-30% of the electorate. But Berenger being so obsessed by ethno-communal considerations finds that it will be dangerous for our social fabric, as if we have not had by-elections in the past! The way this electoral campaign is unfolding, I doubt very much that there would be a Presidential election, whether at one or more rounds.

* There is also the issue of electoral reform with the provision for a 20 Party List to be added to the other 60 FPTP-elected candidates. What some commentators find objectionable is the mechanism to be applied for the allocation of these seats based on the ‘Unreturned Votes Elect’ (UVE) formula in the particular electoral context of Mauritius where constituencies vary in terms of size. The PR is considered in any case to be a potential disruptive factor to our commendable democratic track record so far as even as it may help comfort the MMM as regards its future parliamentary representation as a major – ‘incontournable’ – political party. What’s your take on that?

The bait for an electoral reform was a device used by Navin Ramgoolam to lure Berenger out of the threat the ex-Remake represented for him. The rest is just artwork and NCR knew he had his good friend Sithanen he could call on to engineer something.

The Best Loser System is and has always been a form of PR, even though it does not carry the same glamour and gloss as the PR. The way the nomination of the extra 20 deputies has been announced will invariably cause tensions among the sensitive members of ethnic communities. It is no secret that Berenger’s electoral strategy has been since the 1990s based on presenting a front of minority ethnic communities. This has proved insufficient to gain power through the FPTP system. So, the ideal solution for Berenger and his MMM is to push for PR where he could make further nominations thinking he would thus control a majority in the National Assembly.

The danger with this form of nomination lies in the fact that it will appear to be more of a private nomination (party leader) rather than a public nomination (electoral process); thus the procedure for redress in case of maldonne remains very obscure. Some sort of a new version of a ‘privatised BLS’.

You are also right in bringing to light the disproportionality contained in our electoral boundaries with the consequence that the 48,000 or so electors of Nos 2 and 3 have 6 parliamentarians and the 62,000 or so electors of No14 are represented by 3. A genuine electoral reform should have addressed that in priority.


* Published in print edition on 21 November 2014

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