By Sada Reddi
For a foreign student arriving in Britain in the late 1960s from a small island state, it was surprising to discover on television and the newspapers that a campaign for the 1970 general election was on. Everything was quiet save for the debates and meetings in conference halls. All the noises on the streets or in public places we are familiar with in Mauritius were unheard of.
The present election campaign gives me a similar feeling. ’All is quiet on the Western front’ sums up the electoral campaign in the days preceding the election. Candidates are hardly seen on the streets; most of the electors have not received any political pamphlet from the main parties, and it should not come a surprise that most of them would have missed the political broadcasts on MBC-TV. People got informed about current political events – the news and commentaries — from text messages and video clips circulated by their friends, acquaintances and others on social media platforms. This time round the social media has been very active, even to the detriment of the earlier political activities being organised on the ground, that is at grassroots level involving canvassing and interactions with the electors directly. In fact, the social media was so active that strategies have had to be put in place to block messages from those too critical of the Government.
In the last week, things began to change. Buntings displaying party colours and messages which had been sparse began to appear, emerging in greater numbers at strategic places, indicating that the electoral campaign was gathering momentum. This culminated in the three major national meetings last weekend. They were meant to be read as pointers to the electoral strength of the three main blocs. As it was to be expected, MBC-TV gave particularly biased images of the rallies of the opposition parties. How the images of these gatherings will be translated into votes is anybody’s guess. This does not prevent people coming forward with different predictions of the election results with the different teams winning above 29, 12 and 10 respectively. But all these are mere guesswork and for many the results could well prove to be a Pandora’s Box.
Until we get the verdict, it may be appropriate to identify several factors which have so far marked this election which in a way set it apart from previous elections. First, this is a three-cornered fight, reminiscent of the 1976 elections. Obviously the context is different since many changes have taken place at different levels. Those going to the polls this time round will benefit with hindsight from the 1976 elections and will definitely adjust their votes according to their various interests. This has already been seen in the insistent appeals to vote for the three candidates of the different alliances while others are officially and unofficially advocating in favour of a plumper vote — a vote given to one candidate only based on different criteria, when two or more are to be elected, thus giving him or her the advantage over the others. In the latter case, the selection of candidates on the basis of divisions and sub-divisions of the various communities and class, already present in all elections, may become more important. On the other hand, the importance that electors give to the elections may bring them to override petty differences and vote for the party as in 1967 or in wave elections.
Second, how far money politics will influence the electoral outcome remains to be seen. There is no doubt that vast amounts of money are being spent not simply to defray elections costs but to literally buy candidates and electors. We have seen it happening before Nomination Day and during the electoral campaign. It is widely known that gambling barons – and allegedly drug lords as well — have unscrupulously joined the fray. While they were discreet in previous elections, they are now operating in the open, and it is to be expected that loads of money will be spent.
At a lower level, it is rumoured that large sums of money are being offered to groups of political agents of the opposite camp – not necessarily to defect to the party of the financiers but to boycott or even to stop giving support to the political activities of their respective parties. Political parties are keeping watch over these nefarious practices, but to what extent this new type of money politics will shape the outcome of the elections remains unknown. The only consolation we have is that money politics had never been a determining factor in the overall outcome of past general elections. In spite of the vast amounts of money spent to fight the elections in 1967, the party with limited resources won the battle.
All parties have been putting forward measures to win over the electorate. It appears that this election is being fought in the shadow of the last election when an increase in old-age pension was considered as one of the major factors which contributed to the defeat of the Labour-MMM alliance. It would be naïve to limit ourselves to this sole explanation for the victory of Alliance Lepep; other factors were as important or even more important. This time, parties have been on their guard. All parties have embraced this competitive bidding to win the elections. In a sense, this is inevitable as no serious party or alliance competing to form the next government can afford to ignore this practical dimension of electoral politics. However, for some parties, these are not populist measures but stem from a socialist philosophy to re-engineer society towards more equity and social justice.
It is thought that about 50% of the electorate will wait until the last day to take a final decision for whom to vote. In other words, this suggests that a large segment of the electorate is not aligned to any party. In fact, de-alignment is not a new phenomenon but it has become more pronounced in recent years as most parties are to be found left of centre.
Who are the undecided voters who wait for the last few days in the election to make up their minds? In fact, what do they need to make up their minds? Nothing, in fact, unless they are simply waiting to see the direction in which the wind is blowing to jump on the bandwagon. In that case, last weekend’s national rallies can function as a tipping point for the outcome of a general election. There are other reasons too. In Mauritius, the 50% undecided voters may not really be floaters; they are simply electors who consider their voting preference as something very private. But for the majority, they simply want to avoid any pressure from a caretaker government or even retaliation in the form of punitive transfers. They simply remain quiet and vote according to their individual party preference.
In the end, electors will be influenced by various factors. Some will give weight to material considerations; others will factor in such issues as drugs, nepotism, corruption, indebtedness of the country and the way our institutions have been used to feather the interests of a clan. For the young particularly, employment, environment and democracy will be important considerations. Whatever be the aspirations of the population, old and young, women and men, finally they will have to consider which team will emerge from the 2019 elections and that has the competence and the will to deliver a better Mauritius for all and not for one particular clan.
* Published in print edition on 6 November 2019