“Only the fools learn from their mistakes. The wise learn from the mistakes of others.”
— Ancient Proverb
What we may call the modern history of party politics in Mauritius can probably be traced back to 1936 with the birth of the Labour Party of Dr Maurice Cure.
A party founded on the principle of unity of the working classes against the exploitation which they were enduring at the hands of the local landowners in the sugarcane fields and factories.
For a long time the interests of the colonial administration and those of the owners of the means of production (land and factories) were so convergent and the right to vote so limited that the land owners did not feel the need for a distinct national party to defend their interests. The essence of the political struggle was that of the labourers and artisans of the sugar industry and the port workers against an objective alliance of the colonial administration and the plantocracy.
The institutionalisation of bi-partisan politics – i.e. the supremacy of the two-party system in which two large political parties vied for electoral supremacy through the election of a majority of members first in the Legislative Council of Mauritius thereafter renamed Legislative Assembly – can be traced back to the introduction of Universal Adult Suffrage in the 1958 Constitution. All through this time, the Labour Party, which was responsible for several landmark constitutional developments leading to the independence of the country in 1968, generally continued to enjoy the support of the working classes and the trade unions.
The Parti Mauricien, under the leadership of Jules Koenig, was born in 1960 in opposition to the Labour Party. It was a creation of the plantocracy in the context of the new widened adult suffrage. Since its origin it was by definition a “reactionary” party. Its single objective was the preservation of the status quo and therefore the interests of the dominant planter community.
The emergence of a predominantly two-party system did not of course preclude the existence of other smaller parties – the Independent Forward Bloc of the Bissoondoyal brothers and the Comite d’Action Musulman under the leadership of AR Mohamed, for example, were active participants in the latter part of the political/constitutional evolution of the country.
Similarly it would be unrealistic to state that there were two monolithic blocs permanently in opposition. As always happens in a long-drawn political battle, the two blocs were themselves sometimes and under specific circumstances traversed by minor contradictions and peopled by opportunists who would seize on these to further their own agenda. One suspects that even the British colonial administration, which were reputed for having raised the political tool of “divide and rule” into a fine art, were not themselves innocent of some such dark manoeuvres of playing one group against the other and securing their wider geo-political interests.
These were the parameters which structured the political “game” over the nearly thirty years of our “modern” political history culminating in the general elections of 7th August 1967, in which nearly half of the population voted against the project of independence of Mauritius.
In 1969, only one year after independence though, a national coalition government was engineered between the ruling Labour Party and their hitherto purportedly irreconcilable enemy – the PMSD – under the aegis of the French Foreign Minister Michel Debré. This came as the great anti-climax to all the preceding events. Meant to reconcile the great divide between the two parties, driven by their respective leaders, all it managed to do was to create a sense of total rejection among the population at large but mostly so among the supporters of the Parti Mauricien Social Democrate. It marked a major inflexion point in the political landscape.
The political void created by this dramatic turn of events was quickly filled by a new party of young leftist intellectuals (Mouvement Militant Mauricien) which started mobilizing the young and the working classes for revolutionary changes and a radical overthrow of the establishment. Thirteen years later, after the inevitable “purges” and splits so characteristic of burgeoning leftist parties in the 70s, the MMM having adjusted to the “complexities” of electoral processes acceded to power on the basis of a much-watered down manifesto. The adjustment process gradually shifted the emphasis to take into account the “electoral exigencies” of Mauritius.
As a result the growth of the MMM into a “mainstream” party was basically at the expense of the PMSD which, having lost its electoral base, went into quasi-oblivion only to be reborn almost fifteen years later in a new avatar with admittedly very few common traits with its predecessor. In 1983, its leader Gaetan Duval could savour the sweetest of revenge as his association with the MSM, a splinter party under the leadership of Sir Anerood Jugnauth, defeated the MMM in one of the fiercest electoral battles witnessed in the country.
History, it is often said, tends to repeat itself. A cursory glance at the fate of the MMM since the last general elections would seem to confirm the adage. In fact, in a most ironic turn of events, the MMM which was the rebel child born out of the ill-fated marriage of the Labour Party and its arch-enemy the PMSD, has fallen prey to what can be described as almost a repeat of the events of 1969 which led to the near demise of the PMSD.
For almost a decade the confrontation between the Labour Party and the MMM defined the main course of the political activity in the country with the third “small” party – the MSM – being reduced to an insignificant actor. When the Labour Party and the MMM got together and presented a half-baked programme of constitutional reforms, the electoral base of both parties felt that they were being taken for a ride by two political adventurers. The rest, as they say, is history.
The question that arises is whether we are now about to witness the end of a cycle in the political history of the country.
It is a now conceivable and even a plausible scenario that the MSM and the PMSD may emerge as the two largest parties dominating the two-party system at the next general elections, and History would thus have done a full circle.
Although there is nothing inevitable in the materialisation of this scenario, it remains plausible so long as the leaders of the Labour Party and the MMM continue to behave as if it is “business as usual”.
* Published in print edition on 26 June 2015