Sacré Paul Bérenger!

Why should we not really be surprised by the recent turn of events on the local political front?

Commenting on the proposed Electoral Reforms only two weeks ago we had concluded that the near consensus surrounding its announcement constituted a potential Game Changer — an event or other occurrence which has the potential to radically change the status quo and the rules of the game — for the political configuration in Mauritius.

Events have undoubtedly moved faster that anyone could have imagined but they are in line with what one could somehow expect. Only last week someone was telling me that he was now convinced that the MMM-MSM Remake was sealed and done ever since he saw the public photograph of Paul Berenger tenderly offering a piece of cake to Sir Anerood Jugnauth on the occasion of the celebrations of their dual birthdays.

At the time of writing, the Remake is still “on” although Paul Berenger has publicly expressed his strong negative comments on the position taken by Pravind Jugnauth at the start of the MedPoint case in court and postponed a high-level meeting scheduled to take place between the two parties of the Remake. The make-or-break decision about participation of the MMM at the 1st of May gathering has been suspended and clearly the MMM leader is playing for time to reassess his game plan. The angry crowd which gathered at the MMM headquarters to protest against Berenger’s stand will certainly also impact on the decisions and even more so on the speed at which matters will move forward.

Under the circumstances there are still some – although seemingly remote – chances that the Remake may yet overcome this umpteenth obstacle. Be that as it may, it is looking more and more like the MSM is now cornered. There will surely be diverse reactions and many views expressed on the extremely confused situation which will prevail in the coming weeks in connection with the above. It is nevertheless possible to try to figure out the most likely scenario on the basis of one constant in the political history of the MMM:  the modus operandi of Paul Berenger.

Politics is the art of the possible. This oft-quoted maxim is mostly used with a rather negative connotation implying lack of principles and outrageous opportunism on the part of political actors. No doubt this is how many people in Mauritius would be judging the latest shenanigans of Berenger including, it would now seem, even some diehard militants. Yet many politicians who would define themselves as realists, among whom we place Paul Berenger, tend to disagree with such a negative interpretation of the practice of “politics as the art of the possible”.

For such practitioners, politics is all about constant bargaining and compromise. It is more of an affective activity, as opposed to an intellectual exercise, in which arguments are used to mollify valued constituencies and to convince supporters that the end often justifies the means. As the day of reckoning (elections in a democratic setting) approaches, such political leaders become more involved with what is DOABLE and not what is desirable in order to achieve their overarching end, which is to win/share power.

In the Mauritian political context there is no doubt that Berenger has perfected the practice of politics as the art of the possible. He creates and then dissolves alliances, not on the basis of some long-term objective but more as responses to prevailing circumstances and on the basis of immediate payoffs. The history of the MMM is replete with such instances.

The latest case in point is the probably future ex-Remake which was reputedly concocted in the context of a purported attempt to oust the present government. Having failed to attain this objective, the Remake was already on shaky grounds. Berenger’s statement on Wednesday evening to the effect that there were already many causes for “irritation” between the two parties even prior to the Pravind Jugnauth incident is quite revealing. Was the break-up of the Remake an accident waiting to happen?

In any case it will be very interesting to see what happens as we move forward. Although the MSM seem to have really painted themselves into a corner, it would be premature to just write them off. Sir Anerood Jugnauth has not yet publicly reacted to the situation and one would think that he will be envisaging how to salvage the rather precarious Remake. A major concession to the MMM is probably one serious option which he would be considering.

Although his enthusiasm must necessarily have been dampened by the hostile crowd which awaited him at Rose Hill, Berenger did nevertheless demonstrate his keenness to meet Navin Ramgoolam. He let it be known that the Electoral Reform Proposals need not be the unique item on the agenda of his next meeting although it would still be the main focus of his concerns presently. The not-so-subtle move from the Electoral Reform Proposals being the ONLY item which he intended to discuss with Ramgoolam to this new willingness to widen the agenda is very revealing of his state of mind. In any negotiation the willingness of parties to bring additional items on the agenda is a clear signal to move from a zero-sum game to a more cooperative approach.

As for Navin Ramgoolam, he must surely feel that he has won one serious battle in the on-going game among the three major actors on the board although his is clearly an unfinished business. He has a first-mover advantage and may be in a position to dictate the agenda but to be truthful Berenger is also in a position to influence the course of events. He would feel that he can still use the Remake as a bargaining chip but that may not last for too long. In terms of timing, there is some pressure on the MMM to show its cards when it comes to the decision to go ahead or not with the MSM for the 1st of May meeting.

The Thursday meeting between Navin Ramgoolam and Paul Berenger is another milestone which will shed some light on the future course of events.

* Published in print edition on 18 April 2014

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