The Worm Is in the Apple

The status quo is untenable for the multitude. We have clearly reached the point of no return. Is it not time to upset the applecart to set things right for all and country?

The turmoil afflicting the run up to the French presidential elections scheduled on 23 April and 7 May 2017 showcases the many current aspects of politics, the political class and political ethics generally, which are questionable and fundamentally wrong. These failings are becoming the norm in the political world rather than the exception. The worm is in the apple. The rot in politics is spreading.

In France, the presidential election race is deeply embroiled in scandals, shifting loyalties, conspiracy theories, political calculations and endless game plans by political parties hell bent on wresting power at all costs on the back of the people. Ethics and principles are blithely trampled upon and replaced by calculated stratagems concocted to steer the victory of their candidate and party cohort at all costs.

Francois Fillon, former French Prime Minister and the centre-right Republican candidate for the presidential elections comfortably won France’s centre-right primaries last year. Polls showed him to be a front runner in the French presidential race. However, everything went awry when judicial investigations were initiated this year against Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen, the other front runner for alleged misuse of public funds by prosecutors in Paris and OLAF, Europe’s anti-fraud organisation, respectively.

Francois Fillon faces allegations that he employed his wife as parliamentary assistant and two of his children as parliamentary aides (when he was in the Senate) in ‘bogus jobs’. His wife is alleged to have earned nearly 1 million euros from public funds over a number of years when she is said to have actually done very little real work. Marine Le Pen is accused of breaking the European Parliament rules for hiring two assistants to carry out non-parliamentary work while being paid by the European Parliament. Both candidates have glibly claimed that the criminal investigations against them are politically motivated.

Unimpeachable conduct

Under French law it is not illegal for Members of Parliament to hire relatives as aides provided the work is genuine. However, are such practices in line with elementary rules of good governance or ethically justifiable? Despite the principle of présomption d’innocence, politicians and in particular aspiring Presidents or Prime Ministers should be the epitome of probity. They should lead by example and have an unimpeachable conduct in all circumstances and leave no room for any blemish or doubt. They must also epitomize sound judgement at all times.

In his speech to his supporters mobilised at the Place du Trocadero in Paris, last Sunday, Fillon publicly apologised for his lack of sound judgement in employing his wife as parliamentary assistant and for not being forthright when the matter came out in public. He nevertheless doggedly reiterated his resolve to maintain his candidature.

The allegations have however dented Francois Fillon’s campaign. His support fell by 5 percentage points and polls indicated that he would be eliminated in the first round of the presidential elections. He dropped in the polls from front runner to third place in just two months. His campaign director and spokesman resigned amid a stream of defections among his supporters.

Former ministers and key leaders of the centre right caucus jumped ship amid calls for Fillon to step down. However, the centre-right political establishment bent on assuring that the centre right win the presidential elections and come back to power (in what is considered as the most open election of the 5th Republic) decided this week, after initially envisaging to replace Fillon, to back his candidature as he represented their best chance of victory. Politics is no place for ethics.

The outsider and centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, former Socialist economic minister, has overtaken the embattled Francois Fillon in the polls and is tipped to beat Marine Le Pen in the second round on 7 May 2017. However, there could still be many twists and turns before the elections.

The final outcome, in an open field of five leading candidates from across the political spectrum, will depend on strategic alliances cobbled between parties and the manner the voters attribute their votes in a context of deep-seated ire and angst to the two candidates chosen by the electorate to dispute the second round. There could be a Trump-like upset. This would be a scathing rebuke to the French political class.

The relentless pursuit of political power by all means is becoming a pervasive feature of politics and a key driver of those in power in too many countries across the world. This is evident from South Africa where the scandal-plagued presidency of Jacob Zuma remains rooted to power despite damning official reports of wrongdoing to Turkey where President Recep Erdogan unwaveringly pursues, in the wake of aborted military coup in July 2016, his massive purge of opponents and proposes amendments to the Turkish constitution to enhance his powers. It is also prevalent in numerous African countries such as Equatorial Guinea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Congo Brazaville or Zimbabwe where leaders such as 93 years old Mugabe refuse to give up power in order to continue to enjoy and benefit from its trappings.

Is such rogue behaviour becoming the new benchmark of governance of the political class in a number of countries? Is there a pervasive mindset among some that everything goes?

Populist backlash

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This simple law of physics is already being validated in the political context. There are growing signs of an equally pervasive ras le bol against the political class, their ethics and their endless shenanigans to wrest power. There is also a growing clamour against the rehash of the same model of economic liberalism which has failed to conjure the adverse effects of the 2008 financial crisis, grounded the economy, heightened the hardships of the common man and deepened inequalities.

This spreading exasperation against the established order and the adverse fallouts of globalisation is already causing a ‘tsunamic’ backlash from the people who feel let down by the same recycled and inept policies of the same traditional parties which have in turn governed their countries for donkey’s years. This outcry is evidenced in the UK Brexit vote, in Europe, the Bernie Sanders ‘political revolution’ and the Trump election in the US, in the ‘casseroles movement’ organised in Paris last Sunday to protest against corruption to counter Fillon’s rally at the Trocadero, at the recent Rio Carnival in Brazil and elsewhere in the world.

Across Europe populist parties and anti-Establishment movements are showing their increasing clout and gaining ground in France, Germany, Britain, Holland, Austria as well as in Italy, Spain, Greece, Portuguese where they are proposing new models of sustainable development to address the core needs of people. They could spell doom for the European Union and the Eurozone.

Bad apples

In the Mauritian context, it is a fact that the quality of the Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) has over the decades nose-dived from the stature of the politicians who fought and won the independence of the country in terms of intellect, talent, experience, qualifications, standard of probity, commitment of service to the people, track record of battles won to advance the cause of the common man and contribution to the cause of fundamental rights and freedom.

Similarly, an entrenched culture of political as opposed to merit based appointments to key posts in government, state companies and institutions, fat cat jobs for the coterie and political high-handedness by successive governments over decades have fundamentally sapped and weakened the management acumen of the state administrative apparatus and the government Establishment. It has also blunted its key role of sound counsel to frame national policies and as a judicious arbiter of public interest.

The upshot of this sorry situation is that both the political class and the government Establishment neither reflect nor benefit from the huge potential of pluri-disciplinary talent, brains and expertise among the young of the country. This has resulted in the chronic inability of successive governments to boost growth over the past decade and devise the required policy responses to address the many challenges faced by the country such as deteriorating fundamentals, the employment and aspirational needs of the young, deepening inequalities, the improvement of the quality of life of the common man or cogent initiatives to assure inclusive and sustainable development.

In such a context, the multiplicity of scandals plaguing Mauritius over the years irrespective of which government is in place was therefore already scripted given a lax structure of control, the absence of a robust system of checks and balances and efficient bulwarks to assure transparency and accountability. The list is long and extends ad nauseam. The BAI, the doubling of the costs of the Bagatelle Dam and the Terre Rouge Verdun Road, corporate governance at Air Mauritius, the never ending saga of unsecured loans and deplorable finances of some state banks and corporations, the wanton pillage of scarce state lands, loss making casinos and the Mauritius Duty Free Paradise (MDTP), etc.

The promise of cleaning of the Augean stables of corruption in the country made to the people at the December 2014 general elections cannot mean replacing the highly lucrative contract with Dufry by equally controversial pricey biscuits at the MDTP. Boosting business in a context of economic downturn does not mean issuing operating licences to very wealthy foreign investors in the highly sensitive financial services sector without the necessary rigorous exercise of due diligence and verification by the regulatory authorities. It has caused awkward embarrassment and having a red face for all involved.

What the people earnestly wish for the country and what we are saddled with after decades of appalling governance is akin to comparing apples and oranges. The upshot is that this dire situation has spawned a lot of bad apples which plumb the future prospects of the country. The status quo is untenable for the multitude. As in so many countries in the world, we have clearly reached the point of no return. Is it not time to upset the applecart to set things right for all and country?

Mrinal Roy

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