The main reason behind private political financing is to corrupt democracy.

Interview: Kugan Parapen

How else do we explain the exemption of at least Rs 10 billion of land conversion taxes for the development of Smart Cities?’

“We should be expecting surprises at the upcoming elections.
This is the trend globally, for how long can we stay immune?”

Our guest Kugan Parapen, economist who is politically engaged, takes a lateral and revealing look at political financing. He does so by going back to the historical origins of the dominance of the elite, private interests which the plantocracy represents to this day, a situation which they have perpetuated through manipulation of the current political power whatever the ideological colour. His analysis makes for chilling reading. Read on:

Mauritius Times: Notwithstanding the concerns expressed in different quarters about the serious failings of the political financing Bill, there is very little likelihood of it being to pass the test of a three-quarters majority vote. Why then should the Government come up with these proposals?

Kugan Parapen: It is obvious that the government has engaged on a damage control exercise ahead of the looming general elections. While the MSM-ML alliance will have to shoulder the full responsibility of many unfulfilled electoral commitments, like the non-introduction of a Freedom of Information Act and the absence of a liberalised audiovisual scene, it is reluctant to bear the full responsibility for the failure to implement major political reforms.

The failure of the electoral reform and the expected failure of the political financing legislation are in fact two sides of the same coin — a coin designed by lakwizinn to fool the electorate. The MSM has little to gain from empowering democracy in the Republic. It has never been serious about political reforms, except maybe after the party’s drubbing at the 1995 general elections. Have they not been sworn to power in 1983, 1987, 1991, 2000, 2010 and 2014 under this outdated political system? Why change a winning formula?

Nevertheless, it is always helpful ahead of electoral bouts to position oneself as a champion of democracy to lure in gullible voters. Especially in the context of the 2014 elections when they had to overcome the on-paper invincible Labour Party-MMM alliance. The incumbent government is currently on a ‘checkbox-ing’ mission. It wants to be in a position to go in front of the electorate in a few months’ time to blame the failure of the electoral reform and the political financing legislation on the parliamentary opposition.

Politics can be full of deceit and this is regretfully exactly what we are being served in our ‘august’ National Assembly. The machiavellian use of enhancement of democracy as the pawn to checkbox electoral promises which were never meant to be fulfilled in the first place!

* One disturbing aspect of the Political Financing Bill is that it formalises the corporate sector’s influence, through its ‘donations’ to mostly the mainstream parties, on who gets to sit in Parliament and therefore on public policy making. How can this be countered?

First and foremost, we need to understand the motivations of the private sector behind the financing of political parties. And we need to bring a historical perspective to be able to grasp the full picture here.

Prior to the British conquering our shores, the French settlers had it their way in Mauritius. They were in full control of the political, economic and social destiny of the island. That changed with the arrival of the British who confiscated the political and executive powers from the French settlers but allowed them to retain the domestic economic power. At some point, the settlers even organised a militia to fight the British ruler. Ce fut le temps de la résistance! Their fight for compensation in light of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire is an appropriate example of the tug of power ongoing on the island. William Wilberforce, head figure of the Anti-Slavery Society was not very ‘élogieux’ of the Mauritian settlers in his correspondence to friends in the UK. In the end, the United Kingdom paid the equivalent of 40% of its annual treasury budget as compensation to slave owners across the British Empire!

Towards the end of the 18th century, the movement for self determination was in full throttle in Mauritius as the local economic elite, led by William Newton and supported by Governor John Pope Hennessy (of Irish descent) lobbied hard for the right of the local population to determine its own destiny – “self determination”. Well, not actually the overall local population but actually those who held the economic power from yesteryear. The French settlers were reminiscent of the era when they had full control of the Mauritian society. Most Mauritians think of 1968 as the determining year when the Mauritians were freed from the British and acquired its own independence. In reality, it’s more nuanced.

Is it a coincidence that the name of the two streets parallel to our parliament bear the name Sir William Newton Street and Sir John Pope Hennessy Street respectively? Is it a coincidence that the statues of these two individuals are next to each other in front of our parliament? Certainly not, for they played an important role in the right to self-determination for the ruling class of Mauritius at that time. So, after less than a century of losing political power in Mauritius, the ruling elite managed to claim back the Holy Grail from the hands of the British rulers in 1885 where a new Constitution was adopted and elections were organised to elect a Legislative Council. Newton was elected.

The main opponent of the reformist movement led by Newton was a certain Celicourt Antelme. He apprehended the implications of democratic rule for the ruling class as he knew that in a democracy, it is the rule of majority that applies. And he is proven right shortly afterwards. Only 4,000 electors were eligible to vote in 1885 but this was about to change as the working class rightly demanded the right to vote. Faced with the impending tragedy of losing power once more, the ruling elite class devised a cunning plan to maintain political and economic power in Mauritius.

After coming to terms with the reality that the political party they backed would most likely end up on the losing side for many years, they reviewed their strategy and retreated to the shadows. They would finance political parties and lobby in the background so that their economic interest is protected. The rest we might say is history…

With this in mind, it is easier, I believe, to dissect the thorny issue of political donations from the private sector. Business Mauritius and other spokespersons from the private sector argue that the private sector finances elections to uphold democratic values in Mauritius and this is sheer nonsense.

* What purpose does it serve? To contain dissent?

The main reason behind private political financing is to corrupt democracy.

In the absence of official figures, one can only speculate but it would not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the correlation between political financing and governmental endorsement of projects put forward by political donors is very high.

How else do we explain the privatisation of power production at preferential market rates to certain important actors of the private sector? How else do we explain the exemption of at least MUR 10 billion of land conversion taxes for the development of Smart Cities? How else do we explain the allocation of all public renovation works to one subsidiary of a former conglomerate? How else do we explain the approval of an EIA License to build a hotel on highly valued wetlands?

The role of government is to maximise the welfare of its citizens, not to maximise the profitability of the corporate sector. That does not mean that welfare maximisation is not compatible with profit maximisation but it certainly means that welfare maximisation is not compatible with profit maximisation in ALL cases. Societal externalities ought to be considered, but they unfortunately tend to be overlooked in cases where the rationale of decision- makers is corrupted during decision-making by the toxic relationship they entertain with the private sector. This is why it is of utmost importance that an independent government rules the country and that such government is guided by the principles of welfare maximisation when it takes decisions.

Traditional parties do not see the toxic relationship with the private sector as a major issue. And why should they? They are probably so heavily dependent on the funding from the private sector to fill their political war chests that they have turned their back to basic democratic principles like transparency and accountability. One even suggested that keeping the names of the donors anonymous was important as otherwise it would frighten the donors. Why should donors be frightened to have their names revealed to the public?

In a debate recently, one of the participants referred to the donation of the private sector to political parties as being confidential information! It might be confidential for those companies but it should not, in any case, be confidential to public interest. Because at the end of the day, elections have to do with choosing public officials to represent the interests of the people in public decision-making. And those electors ought to be fully informed when casting their votes. Would a nature lover vote for a political party that has been financed by a private company which has a track record of deforestation? Voters have the right to know with whom they are going to associate themselves by voting for a political party. It is a fundamental right! If private financing of political parties is to ever be allowed, it can only be if the identity of the most generous private donors is known to all.

* What is the least bad among all the alternatives to private sector donations?

Public funding, if properly structured, should be the alternative. How many of the current private companies would be agreeable to donating to a common fund to uphold democratic values in Mauritius? One should not see public funding of political parties as being money thrown down the drain. Having a vibrant political scene is of utmost importance because it ensures representativity and ensures that evils like dictatorships or single party democracies do not emerge. Imagine one political party receiving all the donations from the private sector with the others having to survive on membership fees only in Mauritius. That would create a David vs. Goliath situation with Goliath likely to impose itself and enjoy absolute power ad eternum. Surely we do not want that to happen.

* On the other hand, inspite of so many failings with respect to its governance of the country, the Government does not seem to be on the defensive. It’s pressing on with its agenda despite the vociferations of NGOs and civil society. The opposition parties keep trying but they seem unable to outmanoeuvre the Government. What’s your take on that?

There is an increasing disconnect between civil society and traditional political parties. And in many aspects, the parliamentary opposition has lost much credibility in the eyes of the population. Some of those parties will be paying a heavy price at the next elections. It takes a dynamic and untainted opposition to outmanoeuvre a government but such an opposition is completely absent from parliament.

There is a reason why some ministers have asked journalists to refrain from inviting members of Rezistans ek Alternativ on the same media platform as them. They would rather debate with the parliamentary opposition. For the simple reason that today’s parliamentary opposition members are tarnished with the same sins as those in government. It is ridiculous for a zebra to call out another zebra on the fact that it is striped. So they get away with murder by simply pointing to the blood on the prosecutor’s accusing finger. “To ti fer pir ki mwa; rapel ki twesi to ti fer parey; to bliye ki kan nou ti ansam, to ti dakor avek sa kalite derulma la”. This seems to be the new standard to answer questions nowadays. Our parliament is a joke. And let us not forget that the joke is on us.

* As regards the economic situation, Rama Sithanen stated in a recent interview to this paper that the present Minister of Finance is spending his time eroding the fiscal base of the country instead of consolidating it, for instance “with the creation of so many fiscal niches that hardly produce economic benefits, the removal of all taxes on large land development… In the process he is distorting and complexifying the tax regime”. What’s your take on that?

What else would you expect from the one positioning himself as the shadow Finance Minister of a future Labour government? However, the issue is not about the message he is trying to convey but rather about the messenger himself. Rezistans ek Alternativ has repeatedly denounced those fiscal largesses given to the private sector from day one. Sithanen, on the other hand, through his ultra liberal approach from 2005 onwards sowed the seeds for the erosion of the fiscal base.

Let us not forget that Sithanen is the architect of the flat tax rates at 15%. Others have merely followed in his footsteps. He crafted the flawed economic model of Mauritius. So why now lambast the monster that you gave birth to ? For me, Sithanen, Jugnauth, Duval and Lutchmeenaraidoo are incarnations of the same evil – finance ministers at the mercy of the private sector! None have been able to come forward with the necessary economic policies to reinvent and revamp the Mauritian economy in a sustainable way.

* It’s for the Prime Minister to decide whether he’ll go for the by-election in No. 7 in November, but that looks quite unlikely now, so political parties will have to brace for the bigger battle which should take place before May 2020. It’s going to be hard and dirty… How do you see the serious matters in terms of electoral strategies, propaganda, alliances, etc., taking shape?

Jugnauth will try to make it two in a row using more or less the same strategy that ushered his alliance to power in 2014. His government will hope that the recent rise in the universal pension figure will have consolidated its popularity among the pensioners. He has tried to portray himself as a responsible person who adopts a hardline against drugs. The recent absence of a governmental representative at a debate on drugs policy speaks volumes about where this government stands on the political spectrum.

Jugnauth is happy to portray himself as a conservative. He wants Mauritius to know that Modi is his best friend with all the implications that come along with this. By increasing the subsidies for religious bodies in the latest budget, he is trying to ratchet up the support from sociocultural associations. He is morphing into the old fashioned politicians that this country has known. Dilo swiv kanal… But will it be enough?

The track record of his government is far from stellar. The economy is slowing down, debt is mounting, gentrification is in full swing, public institutions like the SBM and Air Mauritius have reached unprecedented lows. Not to mention the dismal performance of his Cabinet members, from Soodhun to Tarolah and the close relationship of many members of the alliance with drug lords, in and out of prison. We should be expecting surprises at the upcoming elections. This is the trend globally, for how long can we stay immune?

* Published in print edition on 12 July 2019

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