Being nearly out of ammunition is a very difficult position to be in for any government. But being at each other’s throats remains its biggest nightmare. The leadership of the Prime Minister is being put to test once again
There are no two ways about it: a minister swearing an affidavit in court against a colleague of the cabinet accusing him of serious breaches of “honourable conduct” is the zenith of institutional breakdown in our governance structures.
It is not uncommon to witness differences of opinion among ministers, sometimes on issues of national interest, even in mature parliamentary democracies. However one of the essential, if not the most critical, role of the cabinet in our system of government is precisely to allow wide debates on such issues until a consensus is reached in the Cabinet of Ministers.
Consensus, it must be said, is not the same as unanimity. It simply means that there is sufficient support among members of the cabinet regarding a particular course of action or policy for the Cabinet to adopt the same. Collective responsibility, which is a basic tenet of the Westminster parliamentary system, implies that once a decision is adopted every minister is bound by that collective decision. If a minister strongly feels that he cannot live with it, then the only course of action open to him in our system of government is to resign from Cabinet.
A former French Minister summed up the principle very succinctly if not too academically when he stated that “un ministre ça ferme sa gueule ou ça démissionne”. It is true that in the present case, strictly speaking, there has not actually been any breach of the collective responsibility principle. But then that would be a very restrictive and accommodative interpretation of the principle. The question does arise about how to reconcile this public demonstration of animosity between two senior members of government and the minimum of cohesion which is a precondition for the normal operation of our Cabinet government as well as the inevitable perception of lack of cohesion in policy making.
Swearing an affidavit in court is a far cry from an expression of divergent views on some policy decision which can be reconciled through the operation of the consensus principle.
Waiting for “Rambo”
The role of the Prime Minister as primus inter pares (in the cabinet system, if all ministers are equal, the Prime Minister is considered to be ‘first among equals’) is of course determining in resolving such situations of crisis in order to introduce at least a semblance of cohesion in the team that he is leading.
In fact if one goes by past experience, the lack of decisive action up to now in the matter of Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo v/s Roshi Bhadain is quite uncharacteristic of SAJ’s style. The government seems to be in the midst of a maelstrom that could cause irreparable damage to its cohesion if it is not quickly checked. It presently appears to be nearly out of ammunition and its members are at each other’s throats.
Being nearly out of ammunition is a very difficult position to be in for any government. But being at each other’s throats remains its biggest nightmare. The leadership of the Prime Minister is being put to test once again and he has very little time to come up with some decisive response to the persisting succession of catastrophe hitting his government.
The Economic Consequences
The most immediate consequence of this show of intense rivalry and dissension between government ministers, including the Minister of Finance and that of Good Governance, the sacking of a Minister on grounds of doubtful behaviour, will of course reflect on the prospects for economic growth.
For a country which is relying heavily on private, particularly foreign direct investments, for improving economic growth, it would be extremely naïve to consider that this public spat of controversies and mutual accusations will not impact those decision makers.
This could be even more damaging given that one must assume that investors put a considerable weight on the “stability of government and institutions” when looking at Mauritius for investments as compared to other destinations.
In 1992 Bill Clinton had carried out a successful presidential campaign based on the simple slogan “it’s the economy stupid”. This was meant to be proof that economic success is a sure shortcut to political victories. It is to be suspected that if things are not somehow brought back under control, we would soon be coining a new slogan to explain our poor economic performance: “It’s the politics, stupid.”
The fractiousness in government has naturally provoked a lot of speculation about its future. It is true that the numbers in Parliament militate against any prospects of immediate danger for the government’s survival. It is also arguable that the opposition parties have just given it a breath of fresh air by their decision not to organize the traditional May Day rallies, thus giving huge credence to the general perception that if the government is losing support it does not seem to be to the benefit of the opposition parties.
Whereas one would have thought that the opposition would capitalize on a favourable political climate created by the prevailing instability, their decision not to organize these public gatherings is a clear indication that they are still licking their wounds suffered during the last general elections and do not dare take up the challenge.
Forthcoming events will also be determining in the shape taken by the immediate future political landscape. What will be the decision of the DPP in the case of the former Minister of Finance and his controversial loan taken from the SBM? Even more crucially, what will be the forthcoming final verdict in the case of Pravind Jugnauth?
A positive outcome in both cases will definitely give a boost to the ruling alliance parties although the serious issues of internal dissension would still remain to be resolved. The worst-case scenario would be if Pravind Jugnauth were to lose his appeal, in which case one can surmise that all hell will break loose within the MSM as well as the ruling alliance – which will have to figure out a totally new game plan under the worst possible conditions.
A positive outcome for the latter even if accompanied by a negative one for Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo is still game on for the MSM and an opportunity for Pravind Jugnauth to redraw the lines of battle and rebalance his troops.
* Published in print edition on 15 April 2016