President’s Private Lunch
A lunch claimed to be a private one hosted by the President of the Republic at State House, Le Réduit, in honour of the former President of Mozambique Joaquim Chissano has created another controversy around the presidency.
Besides the foreign dignitary, the other guests were the Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam, the Leader of the MSM, Pravind Jugnauth (who is also the President’s son) and the Leader of the PMSD, Xavier Duval. The debate will go on both from an academic and a legal perspective on what private can or should mean in the context of the lunch hosted by the President. This should not be our concern. The crux of the matter is the perception in the public eye derived from the joint presence of Navin Ramgoolam, Pravind Jugnauth and Xavier Duval on the occasion.
When a President assumes office he subscribes to the oath prescribed in the Third Schedule to the Constitution and which reads:
“I… do swear (or solemnly affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President and will, to the best of my ability without favour or prejudice, defend the Constitution and the institutions of democracy and the rule of law, ensure that the fundamental rights are protected and the unity of the diverse Mauritian nation maintained and strengthened.”
What are the institutions of democracy that the President is enjoined to defend? Briefly he has to defend the existing system of government, the judiciary, the electoral machinery, and above all the office of the President. This list is of course not exhaustive. Now our system of government is based on the Westminster model. The Constitution provides for a Prime Minister and a Leader of the Opposition. Under the unwritten but well-entrenched convention that derives from the British constitutional system, the Leader of the Opposition will oppose the policies of the government of the day and propose alternative measures both in Parliament and outside. The Leader of the Opposition is also the alternative Prime Minister. In case of victory at the next election, Paul Bérenger will have to be sworn in as Prime Minister by the President.
One can imagine the wrath of Paul Bérenger when he came to learn that he was left out of an allegedly private lunch both as a leader of a party, the MMM, and more especially as the official Leader of the Opposition. It would be interesting to find out from State House whether Navin Ramgoolam was invited as the leader of the Labour Party to discuss private matters or as Prime Minister to discuss both public and private matters. It would also be pertinent to find out whether Pravind Jugnauth had been invited in his capacity of leader of the MSM or the son of the President. And how would the President explain the presence of Xavier Duval, the leader of the PMSD in the light of the exclusion of the leader of the MMM? The President may well, through communiqués, explain that his official residence is State House and he can host private functions there. No one would quibble with that. But given that public funds are involved, the nature of the private functions may well give rise to questions.
We are living in an election year. The country has been swayed by rumours of imminent political alliances. At one time rumour wants us to believe that a Labour-MMM alliance is in the pipeline. At other times it would be a Labour-PMSD-MSM alliance. In that political environment, it was totally ill advised for the President to exclude the Leader of the Opposition from that lunch. That the President hosted the lunch is not amenable to criticism. That he chose to invite Navin Ramgoolam, Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party, Pravind Jugnauth, his son and leader of the MSM and Xavier Duval, the leader of the PMSD, cannot be criticized. But what is highly objectionable is the treatment meted out to the official Leader of the Opposition. By so doing the President gave a political coloration to the allegedly private lunch. However much he defends that decision he cannot win as that is already deeply rooted in the mind of reasonable observers.
However, much as one can understand the wrath of Paul Bérenger, he had absolutely no right to treat Pravind Jugnauth “petit crétin”. The reaction of Paul Bérenger contrasts sharply with his attitude during the 2005 electoral campaign when Lady Jugnauth was openly campaigning for Pravind Jugnauth. The President’s wife campaigned against Navin Ramgoolam and more particularly against Arvin Boolell in constituency 11 where the son of the presidential couple stood and was defeated as a candidate in 2005.
This occurred notwithstanding the concerns expressed by the Electoral Supervisory Commission on this sensitive issue. We did not witness any statement from Paul Bérenger that condemned that behaviour as “une telle grossièreté de la part de la présidence”. Paul Bérenger has the singular ability of analyzing situations and qualifying people in relation to whatever his current personal interests may be. Yesterday Pravind Jugnauth was his brother — “p’t frère”. Today he is a “petit crétin”. Had Paul Bérenger defended institutions as he should as a politician throughout his career, his criticism of being excluded would have carried more weight. He has a record of always bashing institutions.
Though the President of the Republic is not a constitutional monarch, the very nature of our Westminster Constitution demands that the conventions of the British constitution on his role should apply in the absence of written rules or conventions. The British constitutional monarch acts within the constraints of conventions and precedents, almost always exercising the royal prerogative on the advice of the Prime Minister and other ministers.
The President, in our Constitution, has to follow the written constitutional rules and when none exists he is bound to follow well-entrenched conventions that would devolve on our Constitution by virtue of its Westminster model. These conventions are not a one-way traffic for Sir Anerood Jugnauth to use when it suits his convenience. On the contrary, they are meant for the good running of the country and for the common good.
What happened at Le Réduit last Tuesday should be a lesson for Paul Bérenger and should call upon us to ask that such occurrences from the President should be made accountable even if the Constitution has to be amended to that end.