“The opposition in our country is still relatively strong, but the opposition parties are weak”

Interview: Chetan Ramchurn

* ‘Barely a couple of months back MSM supporters thought that it would be a walkover win for them. This is no longer the case’

* ‘Rejection of the MSM does not automatically translate into votes for the Opposition parties. They will have to work harder…’

As Mauritius gears up for potential general elections, all eyes are on the upcoming Labour Day rallies, which will reveal the current political dynamics. Chetan Ramchurn, a seasoned observer of Mauritian politics, sheds light on the implications of the PMSD’s departure from the opposition alliance and discusses the strategies and obstacles faced by both the ruling and opposition parties. From addressing electoral fatigue to the need for new leadership, Chetan Ramchurn dissects the intricacies of Mauritius’ political landscape. As the nation approaches a pivotal moment, the interview also explores the factors that will influence the outcome of the elections.

Mauritius Times: This 1st of May holds particular significance as it appears that the Prime Minister may announce general elections sometime this year. The crowds at the Labour Day rallies will provide insight into the “rapport de forces” on the ground, but the assistance of activists and party sympathizers at the “reunions de mobilisation” of both alliances indicates substantial support for each. It’s shaping up to be a tough battle, isn’t it?

Chetan Ramchurn: Indeed, there seems to be significant hype around the Labour Day rallies. The general elections are on the horizon and while the remote control for the short timetable of events rests with the sitting PM. I say short for the present mandate will soon come to an end, and the obligation to organise by-elections within 240 days hovers above the MSM’s head. A defeat at the No.10 by-elections would verily disrupt their plans. Jugnauth will in all probability go for general elections sooner rather later.

This last first of May rally prior to the general elections also comes against the backdrop of a simmering political cauldron. The PMSD has left the opposition alliance, ending long months of tumultuous bed fellowship more with the MMM than the Mauritius Labour Party (MLP). This paves the way to serve the electorate an amended version of the 2014 remake; the MLP and the MMM join whatever is left of their forces once again with the trio of dissenters from the PMSD and in all likelihood a veneer of ‘difference’ or ‘leftism’ from fringe parties and their members.

Disappointingly, non-mainstream parties seem eager to auction their ideals even at the expense of losing their bearings in the finalisation of this pact. If they merely ape the thoughts of the main parties, where lies the difference? They have yet to get the narrative right. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry would say: « Si tu diffères de moi, mon frère, loin de me léser, tu m’enrichis. »

The MSM watches. In the last decade, it has ‘transformed’ institutions into weapons that presently wait to strike its opponents should the need arise. It has campaigned consistently since it was elected in 2019. How could it not? 62% of the electorate voted against the governing alliance in the last elections which should remind us of the following: despite the billions spent distributing money to key segments, despite the many lackeys hyping it, more than 6 out of 10 of Mauritians did not deem the winning alliance as trustworthy. This should remind us of the following: the opposition in our country is still relatively strong, but the opposition parties are weak.

There are some days left before Labour day and we have to hope that they use this event to bolster what Prashant Kishor terms the 4 Ms: the Message, Messenger, Machine (referring to the party or parties involved), and Mechanics (the process of connecting the leader with the masses).

* The departure of the PMSD from the LP-MMM-PMSD alliance, for reasons not entirely clear to this day, may have weakened the “force de frappe” of that alliance. Winning could now be more challenging for Ramgoolam and Bérenger. Do you share this perspective?

The timing of the separation certainly raises questions on the intent of the PMSD. Bhadain claims that the 35-25 breakdown of tickets has been known for long. That the finer details of the deal were apparently not known to the PMSD surprises many. As leader of the opposition, Duval personified the rejection of the MSM and its many scandals and, overnight, he is mum about the billions allocated to drains and the clear project management issues.

To be honest, winning would have been challenging even with PMSD staying alongside the MLP and MMM. Their contribution to votes in the rural region is scant. What seemed clear to me since 2014 was that the MLP needed to introspect, reconnect with its base and grow organically. In business terms, it has pursued a merger and acquisition (M&M) strategy, once again embracing the 40+40 mantra. The electorate’s high rejection of the MSM does not imply automatic allegiance to the mainstream opposition parties. The latter will have to work harder.

There seems to be renewed energy within opposition ranks since the PMSD’s departure. Now no longer in an alliance with the MLP and the MMM, the PMSD will have no qualms in spreading the narrative that Ramgoolam is being manipulated by Berenger. The MLP and the MMM must counteract this perception.

* Apart from what is widely suspected to be the ruling alliance’s access to a significant war chest, the MSM has also shown a willingness to employ any means necessary to achieve its objectives. Do you believe the tide is turning against them this time?

Nothing will be off limits once again. Nearly a decade of power marked by glaring mismanagement and widespread corruption will certainly impact the MSM’s electoral prospects. But rejection of the MSM however does not automatically translate into votes for the mainstream opposition parties. They will have to work harder and not succumb to hubris like in 2014.

* Just like in 2014, the need for regime change has once again brought the Labour Party and the MMM together. However, to win the electorate’s confidence, they must also demonstrate that their partnership is going to be workable should they win the next elections. Do you believe there are valid concerns about this?

The situation in 2014 was different.

The ill-fated second republic… that constitutional imbroglio caused a backlash as well as the equal repartition of tickets. In 2024, nothing of the sort is on the agenda. Still, creating an alliance to overthrow the present regime means nothing if we do not know, to paraphrase Slavoj Zizek, what happens the morning after.

Let us hope that those advocating for change are aware of this. If not, we might be facing another Illovo or smart city scheme in the coming years.

* In addition to agreeing on key posts and electoral tickets, is it crucial for there to be consensus within the Opposition alliance on major economic policies? This question arises considering the minimal ideological differences between the parties today. What do you think?

The mainstream opposition hosts some of the architects of the first Illovo deal and the Integrated Resort Scheme as well as proponents of the flat tax regime (that enduringly crippling measure) and the Real Estate Scheme. The uninterrupted pandering to the oligarchy has to be stopped.

In 2023, the Fabian society gave its list of priorities for a Labour government. These included measures to protect against inequality in the early years, affordable housing and raising living standards amongst others. A common ground on economic direction would be the first step.

* When considering a common minimum programme for the LP-MMM alliance, governance of the country emerges as a key concern. What specific proposals do you have in mind that could signify a departure from what we have been subjected to over the last couple of years?

Greater opportunities for those at the lower rungs of the economic ladder have to be created. Assistance to entrepreneurs through a monthly stipend in the first 18 months would help them navigate through the turpitudes of the business world as would free training to them.

A special attention to the ageing population would be most welcome. Merely giving senior citizens money neither alleviates their loneliness nor ensures their safety. A more caring approach to them would include better access to medical facilities and a rethinking of our infrastructure.

Bolstering democracy through recall elections is a priority. So many sitting MPs have been found inept. Ensuring that these no longer remain in office would instill greater faith in our system.

A look at the state of public education and health clearly shows why private institutions are mushrooming. Uplifting public schools through stringent control and better project management (how can some students not have their textbooks at the end of the first term) would go in the right direction.

* Do you believe the Opposition should also support the proposal to limit the Prime Minister’s term and introduce a dose of proportional representation (PR) in our electoral system to ensure better representation of all parties in Parliament?

Limiting the Prime Minister’s term would help keep democracy vibrant. Over the last 56 years, only three surnames have been given the golden PM ticket. Additionally, should there not be primaries for the selection of candidates for local and national elections? An all-powerful leader who selects candidates based on personal preference cannot be good for our democracy.

I am less enthused with PR because it could lead to an increase in extremist views and could disturb our already frail natural unity.

* Some Opposition members have drawn parallels between the upcoming elections and the struggle for Independence in 1967. However, the stakes may be even greater: it could be a make-or-break moment for the Opposition. If they fail to unseat the current government, they could potentially face an extended period in political wilderness. What are your thoughts on this?

If you look at the harm that the present government has done to our institutions in the last five years, it seems apparent that all elections are important. The last one was as important as the next one.

The erosion of trust in public institutions has lasting effects; it could lead to the privatization of many of our services as well as to the disenchantment of the youth in the present and future and lives getting lost because of poor management.

Indeed, these elections are undoubtedly crucial. As were the last ones. Let’s hope that all involved parties, especially the Opposition, approach them with the utmost seriousness and prioritize the concerns of the many over their own.

* Jean Claude de l’Estrac has been talking about “electoral fatigue” and that the electorate would want to see new faces and is calling for a renewal in politics. In that case, it could be in the interest of these two parties themselves if their leaders would consider the upcoming election as a transitional one that allows for significant reforms and changes like, for instance, younger and promising hands at the helm. Your opinion?

Leaders should look at the opinion the public has of them. Leadership of a party cannot be bestowed based on blood ties in 2024. We cannot blame politicians without blaming the electorate that keeps voting for them. Maybe nepotism is what people want.

A change of personnel can sometimes merely be a PR coup akin to what we witnessed in 2019. I often quote from Tancredi’s line in Visconti’s Le Guépard, “Il faut que tout change pour que rien ne change”; that is, “For things to remain the same, everything must change.” New faces were brought to the dance, and nothing really changed. Corruption remained as high and even worsened, the bending over to the very rich continued, the institutions kept deteriorating.

Still, it would be a wise decision to retire some of those contributing little to our democracy.

* At the end of the day, what are your expectations for the outcomes of the upcoming elections, and what do you believe will be the key factors shaping those outcomes?

It is way too early to predict anything. Barely a couple of months back MSM supporters thought that it would be a walkover win for them. This is no longer the case. The government will have one last budget to sway voters in its favour. Distributing money creates a feel-good factor for a limited period. Meanwhile, there might be an assault on their nemesis’s reputation, potential arrests, and fresh accusations.

While the government’s strength has traditionally been in welfare initiatives, the current alliance in power has notably faltered in maintaining law and order and addressing other critical issues. With the approaching general elections, voters may come to the realization that there’s a lack of any sustained feel-good factor, possibly leading to a hit-and-run scenario during the elections.

Merely responding to the present regime on their chosen battlegrounds will only strengthen the governing alliance. The opposition alliance has to give a vision, a dream of a better life to voters and not merely occupy battlegrounds already occupied by its adversaries. In short, they have to change the way people think.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 26 April 2024

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