“The Bérenger-Duval coalition risks transforming an already divided country into a cleaved and a polarised one between two distinct groups competing for political power”

Interview: Rama Sithanen – Economist & Former MOF

* ‘How will the MMM-PMSD propose Bodha to be their PM when he has neither party, no structure and nor power base?’

* ‘Ramgoolam was and remains an Achilles heel as a potential PM for the Opposition’s entente and even for the LP if it decided to run a solo race’

Besides being a professional economist and former Minister of Finance, Rama Sithanen has thoroughly studied the dynamics of political competition and power in several deeply divided societies. In fact, his PhD thesis addresses these issues. In this interview he looks at the recent developments on the political landscape in that framework, as he outlines the new political alignments that seem to be emerging and that could either perpetuate the historical divides or be an opportunity to revamp the country’s future and ground it in progressive politics. A lot depends on whether the Labour Party is willing to reorganise itself, its only chance of not fading out from the scene.

Mauritius Times: Politics has shifted very serious judicial matters pertaining to criminal activities – murders, alleged suicides, corruption, etc., — as well as issues in the challenging economic climate post-Covid to the background for some time now. Are there indeed some good reasons why division and infighting in the opposition should be getting all our attention as is currently the case?

Rama Sithanen: Absolutely not.

Who said that one week is a long time in politics? Bérenger and Duval have shown that one hour is a very long time in MMM-PMSD politics with their untimely press conference that excluded not only Ramgoolam but also their best ally in the Labour Party: Boolell. The poorly crafted strategy has backfired.

In politics, what counts is not the intention but the ultimate outcome, not the inception but the final conclusion. Then they desperately tried to make amends for their blunder by refusing the resignation of Boolell as leader of the Opposition using fig leaves. The shot was fired, the target seriously wounded and the reaction, as anticipated, a mix of high emotion and combustible passion.

I can imagine Prime Minister Jugnauth convening his kitchen cabinet and starting the celebration with vintage whisky or a glass of excellent red wine. It is such a massive victory for him, may be short-lived, without doing anything. His side has not scored any goal. It is a dreadful own goal by his opponents.

The only question on the PM’s agenda is the size of the cheque and the flowers to be sent to Bérenger and Duval for this hugely unexpected political gift and for outstanding services to the causes of the MSM. I hesitate between characterizing it as a tragedy or a comedy of errors. Or confused arrogance. Duval looks utterly confused while Bérenger is his signature self.

Unless of course there is a well-thought-out roadmap that only these two are aware of to checkmate the Labour Party (LP). Such as the shocking sharing of tickets with 35% to MMM and LP each, and 30% to the PMSD, which not only is totally unaligned to ground realities but worse will always place the LP at the mercy of the new bromance between Bérenger and Duval. A precursor of what would happen in the general elections, in Parliament and in an eventual cabinet.

Context and circumstances are important in politics. There was strong wind in the sail of the Opposition’s entente. By uniting their forces both in Parliament and outside, they have been able to exercise significant political pressure on Government, especially in cases related to economic mismanagement, the Wakashio disaster, the fraudulent award of contracts, the various crimes, the CEB/AfDB scandal, the outrageous revelations on a daily basis from the judicial inquiry at Moka court and the appointments of incompetent political cronies to major posts. Aided by NGOs and civil society which have galvanised huge crowds on the basis of good social, economic and environmental causes.

They have won some great political prizes with the revocation of Collendavelloo as DPM and the forced resignation of Sawmynaden. And even Bodha. All to their combined and collective credit. That synergy would probably have led them to win all the towns in the forthcoming municipal elections. Then, all of a sudden, at least in the public eyes, came this grenade which Bérenger and Duval have lobbed in that press conference and its disastrous results.

* Why do you think it was untimely to hold this press conference and what do you believe are the underlying reasons for such a political strategy when general election are not scheduled before 2024?

Let us be composed and lucid.

Ramgoolam was and remains an Achilles heel as a potential PM for the Opposition’s entente and even for the LP if it decided to run a solo race. The basis for this is well known even if Ramgoolam would understandably disagree. Many people say so openly and some very strongly. Sadly, for him, this is the stark ground reality.

To be frank, many in the LP recognise and acknowledge it on an individual basis even if they are terrified to confront Ramgoolam on it. To be fair, may be Bérenger and Duval are tired of having attempted unsuccessfully to resolve this problem within the four walls and in an amicable way. And they have decided to bring it out in the open. The overriding question is: Why NOW?

It is plain that the timing, tone, tenure, manner, language, threats and optics of the press conference has unleashed a new dynamics with potentially serious consequences for the political future of the country.

First, it plays right into the hands of the PM and the MSM. The centre of attention has gravitated away from the economic ineptitude and scandals that affect the Government to the trials and tribulations of a fractured opposition.
Also, the MSM now has a good fighting chance in some towns in a three- or four-cornered municipal electoral contest with the division among the opposition.
More importantly, the MSM is significantly better off with a very fragmented opposition in a general election with the current First Past The Post system and the boundaries of constituencies.

Second, it has considerably strengthened the hands of Ramgoolam within the Labour Party, which many believe was the exact opposite of what Bérenger and Duval wanted. When some people say that their intention is not to humiliate and insult their adversaries, this is exactly what they achieve in the process, whether by design or calculation or by default or accident.
As widely anticipated, the press conference was felt as an insult, a humiliation and a treason meted out by Bérenger and Duval to Ramgoolam and Boolell. This has triggered a huge wave of sympathy and empathy for Ramgoolam and, as an astute politician, he will leave no stone unturned to leverage this to consolidate his grip on the party.

Many Labour supporters, who were not happy with Ramgoolam, have flocked to his ranks because of the insults and humiliation coming from Bérenger and Duval. I think this will not last long as the political reality dawns on the LP with Ramgoolam as its leader.

Third, Bérenger and Duval have seriously weakened Boolell within the Labour Party. The consensual Boolell will have no choice than to toe the hard line of the Party championed by a ‘rekindled’ Ramgoolam. Without the post of the Leader of the Opposition, Boolell will have little scope to shine and to potentially vie for the leadership of the party.

Fourth, and this is the biggest threat. The Bérenger-Duval coalition risks transforming an already divided country into a cleaved and a polarised one between two distinct groups competing for political power. The seeds have been sown. This is absolutely awful for the progress, development and social harmony of our plural country.

I hope that this climate of sharp antagonism and the incendiary language being used are only temporary and that reason and rational judgement will prevail over emotion and passion once the dust settles down.

* In the wake of the ouster of the Labour Party from the Opposition’s entente as well as the resignation of Arvin Boolell, now by an ironic twist of event, neither Bérenger nor Duval seems to want the job of leader of the opposition? The stepney wheel in all likelihood is going to be Reza Uteem. What is behind this strategic move at this point in time?

It looks like the post of leader of the opposition (LOO) has become a poisoned chalice. As it is all about political brinkmanship and message content. After the speeches of Ramgoolam, Boolell and Assirvaden at Phoenix on Tuesday, nobody expected Boolell taking back his post as LOO.

It is plain that the strategy of Bérenger and Duval has boomeranged, and now they have a bomb back in their hands and the fuse has already been lit. It has to be thrown somewhere. Clearly Bérenger wants to do some damage control.

If he respects the Constitution, Bérenger has absolutely no choice than to occupy the post as leader of the party with more seats than the PMSD. He is also the most competent and experienced. However, he is concerned that it would be perceived as a cynical conspiracy by him in cahoots with Duval to get rid first of Boolell and then to take the post.

Bérenger is far too intelligent not to realise that whatever he does, the campaign against him is already on as a direct consequence of that catastrophic press conference. This is politics. He should simply get on with the job instead of making a mockery of our Constitution and parliamentary tradition with the cynical attempt to appoint either Duval or Uteem as his surrogate.

Xavier Duval would take significant risks if he were to become the LOO as a proxy for Bérenger. Until his newly-found bromance, he was an objective ally of the LP for a long time. First, for Bérenger or Uteem to be appointed as LOO in replacement of Boolell, there will need to be some formal understanding between the PMSD and the MMM for the arithmetic to work out in Parliament. I am not sure Duval wants to enter into an alliance with Bérenger now as it will send a particular message to the population.

Second, at least four, if not all five PMSD’s MPs have been elected with significant votes from the Labour party, including Xavier Duval in Belle Rose/Quatre Bornes. It would be difficult for these Mps to explain their partnership with their erstwhile MMM foe against Boolell and the LP. They must already be facing the heat in their constituencies.

One should remember that the PMSD on its own lost its deposit in the by-election in Constituency Number 18 in 2017.

Third is the personal position of Xavier Duval vis-à-vis Boolell as they hail from the same constituency. How will Duval explain to a sizeable share of people who voted for him the alleged unspeakable treason against the very courteous, affable, consensual, popular and approachable Boolell and take his post?

To be fair to Xavier, he is not one who looks for conflict, confrontation and polarisation. But he is presently in an extremely difficult predicament, and it would be interesting to see whether he gives in under pressure or he maintains his alliance with Bérenger. The poor fellow is in a state of utter confusion.

* So, in practice, Bérenger and Duval, by their actions and attitude, have given an unthinkable gift to Pravind Jugnauth and the Government already mired in many scandals, right?

Objectively yes. The outcome leans in that direction. Even if this was not the intended result.

The PM must be laughing all the way in the face of this disgraceful decomposition of the Opposition. The ‘Entente’ was slated to win handsomely the municipal elections. Now the game has changed considerably. Except probably for Beau Bassin and Rose Hill where socio-demographics will clearly give an advantage to the MMM-PMSD alliance, all the other municipalities are up for grab especially if there is a fourth party that tries to disrupt the legacy formations.

The MSM has a good fighting chance in some towns especially if people think that they should align municipal politics with the Central government to bring goodies to their locations.

The LP will have no choice than to hit hard against Bérenger and the MMM, especially if they are competing for the municipal elections. So, instead of a concerted attack against the Government, the Opposition parties will be dispersed and there will be a division of votes that will help the MSM. It could win with only 30% of the votes in many wards in a highly fragmented contest.

Let us be candid. Already the country was divided along socio-demographic lines between the MSM and the ‘Entente’. Even with Ramgoolam, Boolell, Baichoo, Mohamed and others in the Opposition’s ‘Entente’. One can only speculate how this predicament will change with the LP out of the ‘Entente’.

With Bérenger and Duval calling the shots on one side, and Ramgoolam pitted against them and Jugnauth quietly but surely establishing his power base in his strongholds, there is no prize for guessing what will unfold.

While Bérenger and Duval seem to have failed to understand elementary Marxism that differentiates between principal enemy and secondary adversary, Jugnauth has spared the LP in Vacoas while severely criticizing Bérenger and Bodha. Smart political strategy in the circumstances as he will appeal to traditional Labour voters in a three-cornered fight to vote ‘utile’ against Bérenger and Duval.

Obviously, some will shout the usual communal siren. Unless we have a systemic disruption, Mauritius will continue to be dominated by ethnic and identity undercurrents in both politics and economics as is the case in almost all divided societies. Of course, there will be tweaks at the edges to be presentable, respectable and to appear national but the core will likely continue to be what it has been since Independence, especially when people cast their vote in the polling booths and large corporates choose the composition of their boardrooms. A cleaved society and a polarised country indeed.

* Many believe that the move orchestrated by Paul Bérenger is result of the resignation of Nando Bodha from Government and his positioning as a potential Prime Minister. How do you react to that?

The sudden resignation of Bodha has a lot to do with the political move of Bérenger irrespective of what may have happened in private prior to that.

Unsurprisingly, Bérenger is enamoured and ecstatic as he believes he has found the proverbial horse from the right stable to win the Maiden race. In his mind, he has not had this rare opportunity to field a thoroughbred since SAJ left the MMM in 1983.

While being a decent person, the space available for Bodha to convince the supporters of either the MSM or the LP to migrate to him first and then to the Bérenger/Duval coalition is extremely narrow… even if he is trying to seduce them with speaking fluent Hindi. It is so easy to read into this strategy. Bodha finds himself in a very unenviable predicament.

According to many political pundits, none of the main parties has an electable PM, except for Pravind Jugnauth who is the sitting one. However, Bodha appears to have the features of a potential PM, but he has no party, no structure and absolutely no power base. The political space is very crowded and he could well end up as Ashok Jugnauth and Madun Dulloo.

How will the MMM-PMSD propose Bodha to be their PM when he has neither party, no structure and nor power base? And how will Bodha govern without a majority of MPs from his party? Will he accept to be a surrogate or an accidental PM? It has been tried before and it has failed. Will the alliance between Bérenger and Duval aided and abetted by a symbolic Bodha as a convenient proxy PM change the equation this time? I doubt it.

* Bruneau Laurette has announced his intention to create his own party. His target is very clear: he wants to reach out to the MMM and PMSD electorate. Do you think this will constitute a threat to the MMM-PMSD coalition?

Bruneau Laurette and his team have done an excellent work to mobilise people against corruption, fraud and environmental incompetence. Also, the lawyers constituting the ‘Avengers’ group have done an admirable job in uncovering police incompetence and partiality and has brought many sordid facts to public attention.

The acid test is whether these organisations could morph into robust, resilient, attractive and competitive parties to disrupt the legacy formations and take away their power base. It is too early to call even if there are many laudable initiatives to disrupt the ethnic-driven model and replace it by a post-racial society based on merit, inclusion, sharing, sustainability and resilience. Or will ethnic division and racial polarisation continue to dictate the political and economic agenda as unfortunately obtains in all plural societies?

I pray for the emergence of such progressive and inclusive politics and economics. But this is a very rare phenomenon in cleaved societies — whether advanced such as Northern Ireland and Belgium, or developing such as Lebanon and Trinidad and Tobago. Much to my displeasure, Mauritius looks destined to stay in that category. Unless the likes of Rezistans ek Alternativ, Lalit, Bizlall’s Muvman 1er-Mai, the ‘Avengers’ and other citizens movement could profoundly disrupt the system. An uphill task! Good luck to them.

Bruneau Laurette wants to transform his organisation into a political party. His best bet, as he has himself admitted, is to attack the core citadels of the two legacy parties which are the MMM and the PMSD. He knows fully well that he is very unlikely to cut any ice in the MSM and LP reservoir. He will be fiercely contested by the political elites of the MMM and the PMSD. However, he may well find strong resonance, powerful echo and robust mirror among the rank and file as he tries to leverage both descriptive and substantive representation to his advantage. He could detach part of the iceberg from the MMM and the PMSD vote bank as many are fed up with political dynasties and the lack of renewal.

If he disrupts the system, he could carve a niche for himself at the political table. I have absolutely no idea whether some priests will coalesce with Bruneau Laurette to break the stranglehold of this MMM/PMSD elite on the masses as their battle does not appear dissimilar. It will be a relentless struggle between a traditional legacy and dynastic elite and a disruptive grassroots and popular organisation. Time will tell what happens.

* What becomes of the Labour Party? Sooner or later the issue regarding the leadership of the LP will have to be thrashed out, but the Party does not appear able to do that. Why is that so?

It is a difficult one as emotion is prevailing over reason.

I have said it before. The Labour Party is disturbingly in a precarious predicament. And except for a short-term resurgence because of the insult inflicted upon its leader, the predicament will worsen if the party does not carry out fundamental reforms of leadership, people, policies and ways of doing politics to resonate with its supporters and voters.

It must rise to the occasion to regain its momentum. It has never found itself in the opposition for two consecutive terms. It has arguably a very simple choice to make. The interests of the Party, of its electorate and the country must prevail over personal considerations. Either it adapts and reforms and becomes electable again or it runs the risks of staying in the opposition and be marginalised.

Reform is both feasible and desirable if the Party does its soul searching in a dispassionate, composed and calm manner. We have seen how Jacinda Ardern has made Labour electable in New Zealand after a long spell in opposition. The overriding criterion must be electability.

Now the LP faces another competitor with the MMM-PMSD alliance. In its current shape and with the FPTP system and the delimitation of constituencies, a Ramgoolam-led LP could be the single biggest catalyst for another term of Jugnauth. Or it could split the vote with the MSM to make the MMM-PMSD coalition competitive in many constituencies.

The LP faces some uncomfortable choices.

First, play second fiddle to a Bérenger/Duval coalition which it will emphatically reject.
Second, keep Ramgoolam as leader and potential PM and be marginalised as many traditional LP voters will go for Jugnauth in order not to split the votes.
Third, having no choice or under pressure to enter into an alliance with Pravind Jugnauth so as to confront head-on the Bérenger-Duval coalition.
Fourth is to build an appealing leadership, a diverse and competent team comprising both young and wise persons, an ambitious and realizable programme with new ideas and policies, a modern way of doing politics and a broad coalition of people to become the historical broad church and be electable again.

Difficult for some, painful for others but absolutely necessary to become an attractive, effective and electable alternative to the MSM and the MMM-PMSD coalition.

An informed change in leadership opens up vast opportunities for the Labour Party to become electable, either on its own or in an alliance. This should be the choice of the Labour Party — if it wants to remain a shaper and a mover in the political arena going forward.

* Published in print edition on 5 March 2021

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