“It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become the prey of the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.”
— JP Curran’s ‘Speech on the Right of Elections’ (1790)
The results of the municipal elections are now known and there were no big surprises, with the government parties taking the whole of the cake.
Even the Prime Minister, though, has admitted that he thought the opposition would perform better in some of their traditional bastions.
The defeat of the MMM with the tacit support of the Labour Party or not has been thorough and, to use the much abused cliché, “historic”. It’s for the first time since it has been participating in local elections in 1977 that the MMM will find itself without a single elected Municipal Councillor. This in itself is a remarkable event which could prove a real game changer of the future political landscape in the country.
In this article, however, we shall be focusing on another striking feature of these elections which should be cause for concern for all democrats. Indeed, two out of every three registered electors abstained from exercising their right of vote by staying away from the polling stations on Sunday last.
Political pundits will certainly be busy in the coming days trying to ascribe some meaning to the cause of such massive non-participation. The Prime Minister, Sir Anerood Jugnauth was actually the first political leader to comment on this issue on the very day of the election. His off-the-cuff remark to the effect that if people are not willing to exercise what is effectively their civic duty, then they might as well be deprived of their right to vote, may have shocked quite a few Mauritians. Yet although it might seem quite brutal and a most politically incorrect way of formulating it (which by the way is true to form as far as its author is concerned), the fundamental point made in this statement cannot be faulted by any true democrat.
Although those who deliberately abstained from visiting the polling stations could very well have been driving home a point, it does not make them less culpable of having failed to attend to what is a civic duty for every adult citizen. The basic rationale behind this sacrosanct principle so close to the heart of every democrat is the fact that the right to vote has never been “gifted” to the population at large. Throughout history it has more often that not been acquired after long and very arduous struggles in which men and women have lost their lives.
In this regard the struggle of the Suffragettes, for example, at the beginning of 20th century England, would be a perfect illustration. At the forefront of the battle for women’s right to vote, the Suffragettes were regarded as outcasts of society and had to suffer all sorts of humiliation. Thus, GM Trevelyan, a most respected British historian writes in the first edition of the ‘Illustrated History of England’ (1926):
“The prevailing spirit of the day was wrath and violence; many even of the female advocates of Votes for Women — the most important of the many political cross-currents of that distracted era — resorted to organized outrage on persons and property to advertise their cause, with the result that their cause lost ground. The women who made outrage a method of persuasion were distinguished by the title of ‘Suffragettes’.”
In Mauritius the struggle for universal adult suffrage was a hard fought battle closely associated with the constitutional progress leading to the independence of the country. As late as in the middle of the 20th century in the heat of the battle, one of the fiercest opponents of the cause is famously remembered for stating that giving the right of vote to the masses was akin to “mette razoir dans la main zaco” (handing a razor to a monkey).
Before the general elections of 1948, only 12,000 out of the 222,000 adults in the island had the right to vote. The Labour Party, created in 1936 by Dr Cure, and later led by Guy Rozemont, a brilliant politician from a modest Creole family, and the Independent Forward Bloc (IFB) led by Sookdeo Bissoondoyal were at the forefront of the struggle for the introduction of universal adult suffrage.
As a result the new Constitution of 1947 provided for the right of vote to be granted to all adults who could read, write and sign their names in their respective languages, be it Hindi or French. The Jan Andolan movement of the Bissoondoyal brothers made their mark in history on that occasion by actively promoting and ensuring that a vast number of people from the rural areas could achieve the test for registration as voters for the forthcoming elections of 1948.
Under the new Constitution and enlarged suffrage, Port Louis was to elect four members, Plaines Wilhems six, Moka and Flacq three, Pamplemousses and Riviere du Rempart as well as Grand Port and Savanne another three each. These elections were handsomely won by the Labour Party under the able leadership of Guy Rozemont. Universal adult suffrage continued to figure prominently on the platform of the Labour Party and was finally granted in the new Constitution of 1958.
The constitutional changes, which occurred successively over a period of almost twenty years since the end of the Second World War, were indeed all milestones on a long road paved with “blood, sweat and tears.” The reference to God-given liberty, notwithstanding the opening quotation to this article, sounds a note of warning which is as relevant today as it was then. The right to vote is a fundamental right and the best way to show vigilance and ensure its preservation is to teach our children never to take it for granted.
* Published in print edition on 19 June 2015