Party alliances: What for?

By Sada Reddi

Rather than focusing on pre-electoral alliances, parties may choose to sharpen their strategies for a post-electoral alliance. It will not make any major difference, for all governments have been coalition governments since 1968

Pre-electoral alliance is like Banquo’s ghost. It hovers around the table at party executive meetings but it’s not on the agenda. Since 2019 is most likely going to be election year, the electorate is already speculating on the different alliance scenarios that may come up in the near future. Today only the most gullible take politicians’ words at their face value, for they no longer believe in the deceptive assurances that are given every now and then.

Though there are at the moment many partisans who want their respective parties to fight the general elections without any crutches, there is however a real possibility for the major parties to go it alone this time. Without justifying any alliance whatsoever, it may be a useful exercise to understand party behaviour regarding pre-electoral alliances and make a few observations.

The Mauritian electorate is quite familiar with electoral alliances; it’s an electoral practice which has prevailed over the last fifty years. For most of the time electors had been voting for one alliance or another so that it is considered by many to be a core feature of our electoral politics.

Pre-election alliances are not peculiar to Mauritius; they exist in many countries. Earlier this week, we learnt that opposition parties in India have been meeting to craft a common front against the BJP government. In fact, since January 2019, opposition parties have been organizing rallies and are regularly meeting in order to form a grand alliance. This is not new in India either. In 1977 several parties came together and successfully fought the Congress party after the emergency years.

In Mauritius too, except for one or two occasions, the major political parties have had since 1967 to form alliances to fight elections. The success or failure of the different alliances had their own particular reasons. But no major alliance had proved to be more catastrophic for its partisans than the Labour Party-MMM alliance of 2014.

Keeping their ears a little closer to the ground, party leaders have since become more cautious about raising the prospect of alliances in the future. This explains why parties are drumming loud that they will go it alone next time round. Unlike in India where proposals for a common front of opposition parties are discussed openly and meetings between party leaders are relayed in the press, in Mauritius such meetings are held clandestinely; an air of conspiracy hangs around the secret meetings of party leaders or brokers. This is understandable in the Mauritian context where transparency is a rare commodity.

Toxic alliances

Some party alliances have become so toxic in the eyes of the electorate that their leaders consider this issue to be too sensitive to be discussed in the open lest partisans who are opposed to a particular alliance decide to vote with their feet. If the conditions for an eventual alliance are made public, there will be pressure from various quarters – from party activists or different sections of the electorate — to modify, accept or reject those conditions. Moreover no party wants to fight an election with dissidents within its own ranks.

“This policy of inclusion was inaugurated in 1969 by Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and Gaetan Duval when they opted to transform the victory of the Independence party and the defeat of the PMSD in the 1967 elections into a ‘No Victory No Vanquished’ platform so that government could focus on the priorities of the day. However that policy misfired politically. Unwittingly perhaps, they opted for political suicide rather than the economic suicide of a newly independent country…”

Most people of the Independence years still remember how Gaetan Duval assembled supporters of PMSD in Port-Louis on 2 June 1969 and where he responded positively to his supporters’ call with a loud ‘No’ to a post-election coalition with the then Labour government. On the following day, however, he told journalists that it could be ‘yes’ for a LP-PMSD coalition. More recently the pre-electoral alliance between the Labour Party and the MMM provoked so much opposition in both rural and urban constituencies that both parties were thoroughly thrashed in the 2014 elections.

The deep distrust of the electorate in pre-electoral alliances has led parties to openly proclaim that they will fight the next elections on their own although there remains a lurking suspicion that they may end up doing quite the opposite. Since the election date has not been fixed yet, party leaders prefer to use the remaining time to mobilize the electorate. The strategy is to retain them within the fold and assemble them in the great rallies for a show of strength. They hope that such rallies will increase their bargaining power during future negotiations, and that ultimately their partisans will not have the time to react and will go along with their party whatever final decision the party leadership will have taken. These assumptions generally inform the decisions of party leaders who choose to keep their options open for future alliances notwithstanding the preferences of their electorate.

Perhaps it is worth remembering that in any society, plural or secular, there is nothing wrong per se in electoral alliances, which have been a recurrent feature in most societies – although these may take various forms in different contexts. In Britain, before the advent of the Labour party to power in 1945, the liberal Party-Labour party alliance was the main alliance fighting the Conservatives. In France, the Popular Front in the 1930s was an alliance of French left-wing and anti-fascist parties.

Most elections in Mauritius have been fought between two sets of alliances. Party alliances do not find favour with many people for ideological reasons but also because some have come to embrace an idealist and often a simplistic view of party politics. This idealist view of politics is in stark contrast to the views of the majority of the electors as well as various sections of the different elites that dominate most of the parties. These elites – whether political, economic, bureaucratic, professional or religious – are a heterogeneous group that has organic links with the party elites.

Though parties proclaim themselves formally to be national parties and wish to be considered as such, their support comes largely from distinct constituencies of class, ethnic and other social groups, and in some cases from only a small varying mixture of all these categories. As a result parties that want to accede to power have to contract an alliance so that they can draw support from other constituencies.

Finally, the motivation of elites seeking to exert political power can be reduced to two main reasons in a plural society. The party elite can come to power or retain power on the strength of an alliance with a party with a different constituency. Going it alone is too risky to contemplate unless one is pursuing a long-term strategy and with a particular agenda.

Inclusive politics

Besides the instrumental motivation to capture power, political parties which acknowledge that they represent distinctive interests or are seen to be so, may have the ambition to pursue an inclusive policy – thus their attempts to bring other interests on board, represented by ‘others’, to fight elections but also to govern. Such a policy provides stability, legitimacy and cooperation among the various elites when it comes to governing, sharing resources and distributing patronage to their respective constituencies.

This policy of inclusion was inaugurated in 1969 by Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and Gaetan Duval when they opted to transform the victory of the Independence party and the defeat of the PMSD in the 1967 elections into a ‘No Victory No Vanquished’ platform so that government could focus on the priorities of the day. However that policy misfired politically. Unwittingly perhaps, they opted for political suicide rather than the economic suicide of a newly independent country.

Today, faced with the same stark choice, some politicians would be more likely to bring about the economic suicide of the country rather than commit political suicide.

Whatever the motivations for alliances in our electoral set-up, party leaders may in the end shun any political alliance for strategic reasons. Circumstances change and, with the increasing fragmentation of the electorate, it makes sense to break with the past. Realpolitik dictates that it is not necessary to win a majority to accede to power. A party with 15 elected members or more may easily find itself in a future coalition government especially if the battle cry for the next general elections is to vote for the opposition party and, in fact, for any member of the opposition parties. Rather than focusing on pre-electoral alliances, parties may choose to sharpen their strategies for a post-electoral alliance. It will not make any major difference, for all governments have been coalition governments since 1968.


* Published in print edition on 22 March 2019

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