Mauritius Deserves Better

Last week on the night of 9th June, extremist militants of ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, overran and captured Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq which is the second largest OPEC oil producer, leading to world oil prices spiking. There is a real risk that oil prices could jump to $130-140 per barrel level if the internal conflict in Iraq is not swiftly defused, possibly with the collaboration of Iran, through a lasting political solution involving the oppressed Sunni minority in Iraq.

Rising oil prices will be detrimental for the world economy; the more so as the recovery of the US, Europe (our main markets) and emerging markets barring China from the financial crisis is still tenuous. It carries potential risks of serious collateral damage to our economy and requires that appropriate mitigating strategies be promptly envisaged by Government and economic operators. In the sugar sector, the proposed Government financial compensation to be made to the 18,500 small planters to shore their income in the wake of the forecast of significantly lower and un-remunerative sugar prices obtainable by producers for the 2014 and 2015 crops is a makeshift measure which is akin to administering a serum to a moribund.

More importantly, it does not address the long outstanding issue of establishing through appropriate financing an inclusive model of development of the cane sugar industry which enables the planters to obtain as shareholders of the composite sector, par revenue from their cane biomass and its derivatives to maintain them in activity. The country is also experiencing difficult economic fundamentals as the economy seems to be stalling.

However, at the time when these worrying events were unfolding last week, the political leaders of the two ‘biggest Parties’ in the country were still engrossed in playing their convoluted courting games for an elusive alliance in the best tradition of a soap opera till its dramatic dénouement on Saturday last when the tryst with history is said to have been definitely ended. To date, for more than 10 weeks, the National Assembly has through the complicit accord of the two leaders been adjourned to focus on the sole priorities of the moment: the electoral reform and the Second Republic neither of which has been sanctioned by a public mandate.

All the tenuous arguments which have been glibly advanced by the two leaders to justify their ‘historic’ proposed electoral reform, the Second Republic and their proposed political alliance begs a host of legitimate questions and comments. Now that the dust over the aborted political alliance seems to have settled (until the next frenzy of back channel feelers to rekindle talks) the following questions need to be asked in the light of information which transpired in the numerous press briefings and reports.

How can two senior political leaders going through the swansongs of their respective political careers arrogate themselves the right without any public mandate to decide on blueprints for an electoral reform and a Second Republic and saddle the lives of the young and future generations of our country with them? Shouldn’t the young of the country be allowed to decide on the model of democracy they want?

How can they claim that the blueprints will consolidate nation building and quash communalism when they are already proposing an elaborate codex of specific persons to occupy the hierarchy at the head of Government and the State according to the same scientifically dosed communal and caste logic which has plagued Mauritian politics for decades and scuttled talent and competence?

After ending discussions of an alliance, the same logic underpinned the Leader of the Opposition’s declaration that he would be discussing with specifically designated members of his Party to elaborate a strategy to counter any negative campaign against him. By what logic can nationhood be cemented by what is essentially a collage of communal and caste arbitrage? In essence, how can two political leaders be trusted to do what they are preaching today when they have not done so in the 20-40 years of their respective political careers?

How can the proposals strengthen democracy when these have not been explained and approved by the electorate through a referendum, when both leaders are imposing a whip Party vote on the proposals against a free democratic vote or when Proportional Representative (PR) nominees are listed and chosen by Party leaders according to their own arbitrary and subjective criteria?

How is democracy strengthened without a Constituent Assembly being set up to examine the overhauling of our Constitution in a holistic manner to include such fundamental elements of democracy, conveniently omitted in the present reform proposals, such as limiting the number of terms of office of the Prime Minister and the President or the functioning and financing of political parties? The difficulty and pointed expertise required in such an important exercise is evidenced by the time taken in transcribing the present proposals into draft legislation.

How is democracy strengthened when the Prime Minister (PM) is reported, in the eventuality of his election as President, to have initially proposed a designated leader for the Labour Party instead of allowing the Party to vote for a democratically elected leader to replace him? The Labour Party is not an heirloom to be bequeathed but an international movement anchored inter alia on socialist and democratic values and inclusive socio economic development.

Legislating for higher women’s representation is also used as an effete argument to promote the reform proposals. This hype masks the fact that instead of legislating, all that is required is for the all-powerful Party leaders to voluntarily induct more women in public life as is the case in other vibrant democracies such as India where women recently appointed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi represent 25% of his Cabinet sworn in last month.

Breach of trust

It is disquieting that in the Westminster based parliamentary system prevailing in Mauritius, the Government and main Opposition Party engaged discussions to form a political alliance on the above tenuous arguments. It was doubly worrying for our democracy that they started to already gloat at the prospect of a landslide total victory scenario and declared that they have magnanimously conjured a system to nominate seven defeated candidates from the opposition to provide opposition in the National Assembly! In the recent general elections in India, the incumbent Congress government facing possible defeat did not seek an alliance with the main opposition party, the BJP, to prop and bail itself out nor would BJP have accepted to do so. In the UK, the two main parties, Labour and the Conservative, have in the post War period diligently assumed their constitutional roles as Government or in the Opposition depending on the democratic verdict of the electorate.

The Labour Party and the MMM have been fighting each other in general elections for decades with frequent acrimonious bickering and have shown a clear ‘ideological’ divide on key issues like Education, economic and financial policy framework or broader economic empowerment. The leaders of the two parties have been perpetually in open conflict and are opposed by their style of administration and ideology. How can the PM after being voted by the electorate for three terms of office by the people now decide without the consent of the people, to offer the prime ministership of the country to the Leader of the Opposition who has been repeatedly denied this post by the electorate, as a trade off for a slightly beefed up Presidency of the country? How can such a bicephalous system run by two leaders so different in modus operandi and ideology ensure stability?

The arguments dished out to hoodwink and anaesthetize the people to justify the alliance are basically a lot of hot air. The truth is that the alliance is driven by a convergence of the interests of the two leaders.

In a democracy, an incumbent government is answerable for its actions in front of the electorate at general elections and has to face the people’s verdict. There is a fear syndrome that barring the exceptional circumstances of the 2005 elections when there was a backlash against the incumbent government, an alliance of two of the three main political parties ensures victory. Contracting an alliance with the main opposition Party avoids facing the music and the risk of sanction by the electorate.

For the PM, an alliance means additional safeguard for security of tenure and the possibility of becoming the first President under the Second Republic. For the Leader of the Opposition it means finally introducing the highly disputed PR nominee system into the political system and becoming PM in the trade off. The electoral reform is the carrot or the dowry of the alliance. This convergence of the interests of the two leaders will remain a potent driver for an alliance till the time of the next elections. Instead of an alliance, why do the leaders of the two parties not reengineer their parties to render them more inclusive of young talent driven by a higher political ethos and more democratic to make them more attractive to able Mauritians of all walks of life?

Mauritians today cannot find it normal that for decades, successive governments continue to nominate cohorts of political cronies or politicians tainted by scams or disavowed by the electorate at the head of public institutions and State corporations or in our foreign outposts. There is an entrenched culture of nurturing fat cat political appointees. In a recent press conference, the number of political appointees secured in the context of the government alliance was proudly and unabashedly extolled as prized trophies. Political alliances exacerbate this process. Worse, when things go wrong and get out of hand as is often the case in such a system, the government appoints at great cost a foreign consultant to audit and set things right.

If Mauritius is to leapfrog its development to a high income economy assuring an inclusive and environment friendly development anchored on a policy framework with a strong social content, there must be a dynamic synergy between qualified and competent Ministers and equally qualified and competent heads of Ministries, State institutions and corporations and their cadres. There is a crying need for a new approach based on harnessing all the most competent talent and resources of the country not only to man the country but also to take over the leadership of political parties to enable the country to achieve its highest ambitions and steer the country towards higher levels of growth and inclusive prosperity.

After the lengthy political distraction, it is also high time that the country gets its priorities right in the face of threats posed by the Iraqi situation and the serious challenges faced by the real economy.


* Published in print edition on 20 June 2014

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