Leaving the political stage in Mauritius is so very hard to do

Like many observers of last week’s Mauritius general election I was surprised by the poll published in l’express which showed the PTr-MMM coalition heading for a comfortable victory. Even on the day of the election, it was reported that outgoing Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam was confident that L’Alliance de l’Unité et de la Modernité would form the next government. But Sir Anerood Jugnauth evidently had his ear to the ground when he forecast that his MSM-PMSD-ML grouping would win at least 40 of the 62 contested seats. As we now know, the actual number was 47, which local and external commentators have described as a “landslide victory” for L’Alliance Lepep.

The inaccuracy of the l’express poll raises some interesting questions. Was the sample skewed, or was it due to the fact that those asked about their voting intentions changed their minds in the run-up to polling day? I suggest that the answer is more nuanced: those interviewed knew very well how they would vote, but for various reasons were reluctant to declare their intentions to pollsters.

But the election result also raises a broader question about political leadership in Mauritius. We now know that after some hesitation Paul Bérenger has been “persuaded” by his family to remain leader of the MMM, and take up his position as official Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly.

The position of the Parti Travailliste’s Dr Navin Ramgoolam is not so clear. He says he is staying put, but others in the party undoubtedly take a different view. In his own mind the temptation to carry on must be great, despite the maxim coined by the late Enoch Powell to the effect that “all political careers end in failure”.

Of course, Powell was speaking from the perspective of UK politics. At Westminster there is a long tradition that any leader of a political party who has been defeated in a general election will resign more or less immediately to make way for a contest to elect a successor. John Major, who had inherited the leadership of the Conservative Party and position as Prime Minister from Margaret Thatcher, won the general election in 1992, but then, in 1997, suffered one of the worst election defeats in modern times by a revitalised, “New” Labour Party led by Tony Blair. Major knew what was expected of him. “When the curtain falls,” he announced gracefully in a statement outside 10 Downing Street, “it is time to get off the stage.”

Something similar happened when Gordon Brown failed to win a majority for the Labour Party in the general election of 2010, and it became clear that a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg was not achievable, but a coalition between Conservatives headed by David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats was. After stating that it had been “a privilege to serve” the nation, Brown, often criticised for being moody and difficult to work with, received many plaudits when he said: “I have been privileged to learn much about the very best in human nature, and a fair amount, too, about its frailties, including my own.” Brown ended his brief speech by saying, “Thank you and goodbye.”

There is no need for a crystal ball to know what will happen after the 2015 UK general election. Whoever ends up on the losing side – David Cameron, Nick Clegg or Ed Miliband – will immediately tender their resignation and someone else will be elected to lead the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats or Labour Party respectively.

Perhaps leaving the stage is easier for former British Prime Ministers than their Mauritian counterparts as there are plenty of alternative career options available in Northern Europe. John Major followed his lifelong passion for one particular sport and became president of the Surrey County Cricket Club between 2000 and 2002. For many years he has made a very good living from after-dinner speeches and several international directorships, including those attached to Credit Suisse and the National Bank of Kuwait. Major is also on the advisory board of the Peres Center for Peace in Israel and is President of Asthma UK.

Tony Blair, too, is doing very well. He is an adviser to investment bank JP Morgan and Zurich International, and is a big draw on the lucrative US lecture circuit. Blair is also an unpaid Middle East peace envoy. Some claim that he is worth £100 million, though earlier this year Blair himself stated that his wealth is less than £20 million.

Since his resignation as leader of the Labour Party, Gordon Brown has shown himself much less interested in money than his immediate predecessors and kept himself occupied with charity work, including a position as a United Nations envoy for education. And he played a decisive role in defeating the Scottish Nationalist Party in the recent referendum on independence for Scotland. Nevertheless, Brown has just announced his intention to step down after 32 years as an MP at the 2015 general election, a move which some speculate could pave the way for him to succeed Christine Lagarde as managing director of the IMF.

Because such cultural, income-generating or status-enhancing philanthropic opportunities available to former heads of government in the UK are relatively scarce in Mauritius, this makes it more likely that ex-Prime Ministers will bide their time waiting for an opportunity to return to the political stage. However, it’s clear that after last week’s general election result both Ramgoolam and Bérenger are under threat.

Former foreign minister Dr Arvin Boolell has indicated that, despite losing his seat in Vieux Grand Port and Rose Belle, he is prepared to take on the leadership of the Labour Party, while Ivan Collendavelloo has said that he would like to take over the reins of the MMM before handing over power to younger party members in the not too distant future.

Although Sir Anerood has shown that it is possible for the political wheel to turn full circle – Prime Minister, President and Prime Minister once again – it is now obvious that even some of their most loyal supporters hope that Navin Ramgoolam and Paul Bérenger, the veteran heads of two of the three largest political tribes in Mauritius, will realise that the curtain has fallen and that it is a good time to get off the stage. No doubt their exit will create a vacuum that might take time to be filled – but such is the nature of democratic politics.

 

Dr Sean Carey is honorary senior research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester

 

 

* Published in print edition on 19 December 2014

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