From Status Quo to Status Quit – Forty Years after 20th December 1976

Three major “known unknowns”: What will happen in the Navin Ramgoolam remaining court cases?

What will be the decision on the DPP’s motion for appealing the Medpoint/Pravind Jugnauth case? Will Pravind Jugnauth succeed his father as Prime Minister?

Following two years of continuous tensions and publicly exposed infighting among government ministers, one would have thought that matters could not possibly get any worse. As it turned out this was obviously a naïve appreciation of the capacity of our political leaders to surprise us by their propensity for fomenting drama and instability and shooting themselves in the foot in the process.

In a characteristic bout of hubris the government decided that its command of a three quarters majority in Parliament would allow it to force through a most controversial piece of legislation and consequent amendment to the Constitution. The object of this exercise was nothing less than to radically change the nature of one of the fundamental institutions of the Republic — the status and powers of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

In what remains a fairly confused process, the PMSD of Deputy Prime Minister Xavier Duval, which was the second largest component of the Alliance, has chosen to quit and join the ranks of the opposition in protest against, it would seem, the process rather than the substance of the proposed legislation. As a result, the Alliance Lepep, which won the elections of 2014, is for all intents and purposes a thing of the past. We are henceforth confronted with a totally new political landscape and how the new dynamics will all play out in the coming months will be determining for the fate of the country.

The tragic historical irony is that exactly 40 years to the date since the MMM became the largest party in Parliament following its remarkable victory in the fateful elections of 20th December 1976, its leader is forcibly having to hand over the position of Leader of the Opposition to the leader of the PMSD.

This is indeed a remarkable coincidence by any standards and may be viewed as a turning point in the re-configuration of party politics in Mauritius. The leader of the Labour Party has already sensed that a momentous change is about to take place and will surely be tempted to consider the PMSD as the natural ally of yore (post 1969). As for the MMM the change of status of its leader would surely constitute a true reality check and confrontation with rather unpalatable ground realities sooner rather than later. It will also be confronted with a situation where its options are fairly limited.

Attempting to figure out how all this is going to finally play out between now and the next general elections is indeed a challenging task. All we can attempt in the rest of this article is to consider some of the elements which could define the contours of the future political landscape with the caveat that the timing of the next general elections is an unknown but potentially determining factor. A week, as we are constantly reminded, is a long time in politics…

Grand alliance

In the heat of the present events, some observers have rather precipitously invoked an eventual grand alliance consisting of the Labour Party, the PMSD and the MMM which would turn out to be an unbeatable juggernaut against the MSM for the next general elections. Such a prospect. while tempting and attractive for some, would however surely be confronted by a number of practical and organisational problems.

For those who have any experience of such matters, it should be clear that the issues of distribution of tickets and positioning of candidates in different constituencies for elections in such a configuration would be well-nigh impossible to agree upon. In any event, even if these obstacles could be miraculously overcome, it is far from obvious that the Labour Party vote banks would blindly follow what they would find to be a politically risky adventure. The experience of the last general elections stands testimony to the sensitivity of that electorate to such kinds of risks.

In our parliamentary system of government, the person who leads the party with the largest number of members among the minority parties becomes the Leader of the Opposition. Paul Berenger has therefore sensibly resigned to allow the appointment of Xavier Duval to the post. Given that institutionally, in our Westminster model the Leader of the Opposition is the aspirant Prime Minister, the decision of the Leader of the PMSD to accept the position of Leader of the Opposition is not only a historical breakthrough for his party but also a significant political signal as to the future ambitions of its leader in the emerging political landscape. Aspiring partners beware!

As for the MMM, its avowed first option of going it alone for the next general elections, always doubtful for many observers, becomes even more problematic in a context where the timing of these elections becomes an unpredictable variable. The fact that the move of the PMSD is generally believed to have been condoned, if not coordinated with the Labour Party, seems to indicate that they already have a preferred option in their choice of allies for the next general elections, further restricting the tactical space open to the MMM.

Although no one doubts the fact that Paul Berenger is not overly infatuated with the post of Leader of the Opposition, it would be naïve to ignore the fact that giving up the position is a serious political setback as it impairs both his institutional authority and range of parliamentary action. The MMM could become the most vulnerable collateral victim of the decision of the PMSD to quit the government. Clearly it finds itself in an unprecedented situation ever since it joined Parliament in 1976.

One of the eventual options open to the MMM remains an alliance with the MSM and, in spite of all its evident reticence, it may finally have no other alternative. As much as the Labour Party and the PMSD may wish for early elections in order to leverage the prevailing favourable winds, the MMM would need time to consolidate its internal structures and find the most suitable way forward.

Political quagmire

Although the MSM remains the largest political party, it remains riddled with internal problems and has managed to put itself in a political quagmire. The departure of the PMSD from the Alliance Lepep has further weakened a government which was already struggling to convince the nation that it had the necessary competence to deal with the sort of challenges with which the country is confronted.

The performance of the government over the past two years has been particularly damaging in its failure to deliver on its promise to re-boot the economy. There have been serious problems building up for a long time and crying out for solutions even before the government took over in 2014. The consensus in the country is that it has failed to focus on the real issues and has instead been distracted by internal strife and sharing of the spoils of power.

The lingering leadership issue between Anerood Jugnauth and his son has also taken a serious toll on the credibility of the MSM party and the government. Having said the above though, it must be acknowledged that the MSM does hold a few trump cards up its sleeves. As the leading party in the incumbent government, it will surely turn the exit of the PMSD into an opportunity to “recruit” from the existing numerous dissenting elements and independent members of Parliament to consolidate its numbers with the aim of crossing the all-important 35 seats.

Having secured that comfort, it would then hold the critical advantage of deciding when the next elections will be held – although it might be under immense pressure from a consolidated parliamentary opposition as well as from the public in case there is no real breakthrough in the economy and some of the most glaring social problems afflicting the country keep getting worse. In this context, this control over the timing of events is a strategic asset which, if used intelligently in conjunction with other factors, can prove to be a game changer.

Of course, to sum up our above conjectures, we cannot avoid mentioning three major “known unknowns” at this point in time: What will happen in the Navin Ramgoolam remaining court cases? What will be the decision on the DPP’s motion for appealing the Medpoint/Pravind Jugnauth case? Will Pravind Jugnauth succeed his father as Prime Minister and under what circumstances?

Rajiv Servansingh

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