The Pravind Jugnauth Comeback: A Singular Opportunity to Stop the Rot

A major unknown which had been contaminating the political equation has been lifted and Pravind Jugnauth is now back in government as no less than the Minister of Finance and Economic Development.  Ever since he took over the Finance portfolio after the mini-reshuffle, which had seen the shifting of Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo to the Ministry of External Affairs, Sir Anerood Jugnauth made no secret of the fact that this was a temporary fix until he made up his mind about the issue in the light of the outcome of the MedPoint appeal case of Pravind Jugnauth.

Given what has happened, some partisan minds have insidiously been suggesting that the posture of SAJ is “proof” that he knew all along what would be the outcome and was therefore only keeping the seat warm until the rehabilitation of his son. Such disparaging remarks which tend to cast aspersion on the due judicial process are totally unwarranted and irresponsible. However, SAJ’s public remarks about the verdict given in the lower courts by the two magistrates — he had declared that in his opinion as a senior law practitioner the decision was wrong — was probably equally uncalled for from a Prime Minister.

The posture taken by SAJ could simply mean that whatever the outcome there would be a new Minister of Finance following the verdict on the appeal case. In these days when lack of trust in institutions and in society at large is a major factor plaguing our capacity for formulating a coherent and decisive vision for our nation, such remarks about the judiciary are totally irresponsible and even dangerous. This is of course not to suggest that the judiciary is not fallible but that there is due process which is in place to take care of such cases.

Political impact of the decision

There has been considerable political speculation since Pravind Jugnauth was found guilty of conflict of interest under the POCA in the MedPoint Clinic case and decided to go on appeal against the decision of the lower court. As commented in this column at that time, he did the honourable thing by immediately resigning as Minister. The most striking effect and consequences of that action have probably not received the attention they deserve among political analysts.

The fact that the leader of the majority party in Parliament is not also the Prime Minister is already an exception to our Westminster model of parliamentary democracy. In the local context, given the family affiliation the negative effects of such a disposition were mitigated as long as he sat in Cabinet where undoubtedly he would have had a “special” status. When by the force of circumstances he decided to resign from his cabinet position, the situation took a turn for the worse although it would seem that no one then measured the impact which the decision would have on the workings of government at the time.

The lines of authority within the MSM and to a lesser but significant degree within the government itself were blurred. There is no doubt that at least some of the dysfunctional aspects of government action were attributable to this new situation. The most obvious among these would be the visible tensions among some Cabinet members who clearly had varying degrees of allegiance to and support from the party leader and the head of the House.

The return of the leader of the party in Cabinet and more so as Minister of Finance and Economic Development is therefore definitely a positive development for the coherence of the MSM party as also for the government. Although tensions within government will not just vanish because of this new situation, they are henceforth more likely to be resolved within a more appropriate setting where the organisational hierarchy and lines of authority are clearly defined.

There remains the question of inter-party relations especially with regard to the relations between the leaders of the parties forming part of the governing alliance. There are no reasons to believe that these should be any more or less problematic than in any other alliance even if there is a change of leadership in the MSM. The “usual suspects” would probably find that it is too early to challenge the new status quo and would prefer to take their chances within the new configuration.

Pravind Jugnauth is henceforth a Prime Minister in waiting. The next important development in the political landscape will be his actual designation as such when the present Prime Minister steps down. There is no constitutional or moral imperative for the incumbent to resign as a Member of Parliament and cause a by-election in his constituency. There would be even less political appetite for such a step. Firstly the new government — assuming that there would be a significant Cabinet reshuffle — would certainly not fancy getting embroiled in a time and energy consuming political campaign. Secondly a “faux pas” in such an event would considerably mar the start of the new team and on balance this is a risk which can be and would probably be averted.

Finally there is the issue of whether the succession as planned would somehow suffer from a veil of “illegitimacy” because, as suggested by the supporters of this view, Pravind Jugnauth was never presented to the electorate as an eventual Prime Minister within the present mandate. It must again be said, however, that in our present Westminster model there is nothing which prevents any Member of Parliament who can prove to the Speaker that “he commands a majority in Parliament” from becoming the leader of the House and therefore Prime Minister.

The leadership of every Prime Minister in Britain is put on the line at annual party conferences. Should he fail the test, he is forced to resign as leader and as Prime Minister. Only some months back the same happened in Australia where the incumbent Prime Minister lost his leadership and prime ministership to his rival in the party. One wonders if this is not precisely what is missing in the “internal democracy” of our large parties in Mauritius where leaders remain in place for nearly  decades even when they have led their parties to severe defeats in general elections.

In conclusion it would be fair to say that the comeback of Pravind Jugnauth creates a new favourable dynamics for government. It opens up a window of opportunity for him to impart a new sense of direction and stability to the government actions. The presentation of the Budget would most likely constitute THE test of whether he has the mettle to seize this opportunity or not.

* Published in print edition on 3 June 2016

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