By Mrinal Roy
Not much is changing. The style of governance, the political landscape and the leaders of the main parties blissfully remain unchanged. This cannot go on. It is a recipe for recurring socio-economic setbacks and a clarion call for a scathing backlash from the people
As we prepare ourselves to welcome the New Year in a few days, many interrogations regarding the future political, economic and social prospects of the country remain unanswered. At the political level, two general elections have taken place in the space of five weeks in Mauritius and the United Kingdom. The contrast could not have been more telling on the sorry state of our democracy.
While the landslide victory of the Conservative Party, led by Boris Johnson, by a majority of 80 seats at the recent UK general elections was emphatic and unequivocal, the results of the general elections in Mauritius are mired in controversy and plagued by interrogations and a persistent whisper campaign as to whether the elections were truly free and fair. This is an unprecedented situation as we have as a nation always taken legitimate pride at the democratic and fair manner elections have generally been organized and held in the country.
The unacceptable fact that some 6813 voters were not included in the register of voters and therefore denied their sacrosanct right to vote in a context when the vote difference between the 3rd elected and 4th defeated candidate varied between 25 and 292 in eight constituencies (which in essence means half these votes) as well as the absence of any satisfactory explanations have fuelled the wildest speculations.
Similarly, while Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the UK Labour Party whose party lost 60 seats and registered its worst defeat in 84 years and Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats who lost her seat, promptly said in the wake of the election debacle that they would step down as leader, the leaders of the Labour Party and the MMM are, as in 2014, still holding on to their posts despite their second scathing defeat in a row in general elections. For the second time in five years, the leader of the Labour Party was not even elected whereas the MMM suffered another heavy defeat at the polls.
“Had the leaders of the Labour Party and the MMM had, as is the case in the best democracies of the world, the grace to step down after the 2014 election rout to enable a new dynamic leadership to take over, the political landscape of the country would probably have been significantly different today. History will pass its own judgement on the unsavoury saga of their patent fixation with power. By holding on to their posts they have, owing to their style of leadership, persona and unexplained skeletons in their cupboards basically facilitated the outcome of the 2019 elections and notched new electoral failures for their parties. Their claims of electoral malpractices cannot mask this political reality…”
Instead to clinging to their posts, isn’t it time for these ageing and repeatedly disavowed leaders to finally realize that they have become major liabilities and that their continued presence as leaders plumb the prospects of these parties?
Had they had, as is the case in the best democracies of the world, the grace to step down after the 2014 election rout to enable a new dynamic leadership to take over, the political landscape of the country would probably have been significantly different today. History will pass its own judgement on the unsavoury saga of their patent fixation with power.
By holding on to their posts they have, owing to their style of leadership, persona and unexplained skeletons in their cupboards basically facilitated the outcome of the 2019 elections and notched new electoral failures for their parties. Their claims of electoral malpractices cannot mask this political reality. The country has already wasted five precious years and cannot afford to lose another five years of political limbo which can only favour and maintain the status quo.
Mauritius therefore desperately needs a new breed of political leaders with an innovative vision for the future at the head of these parties to significantly raise the political and socio-economic discourse as well as the standard of governance in the country. The status quo is untenable.
It is therefore time for people to clamour for new inspiring leaders and a new political class and to reboot politics in the country to the seminal values, lofty principles and ethos which underpinned the unswerving battle as from 1937 for the fundamental rights and continuous improvement of the well-being of the downtrodden multitude and a better socio-economic and political order.
Jobs for the coterie
Despite calling a December general elections for the first time in almost 100 years in a bid to obtain a clear majority to break months of deadlock over Brexit, Boris Johnson has convened Parliament immediately after the elections. Parliament has thus already voted overwhelmingly by 358 to 234 in favour of the Brexit (EU Withdrawal Agreement) Bill in line with Boris Johnson’s electoral commitment to ’Get Brexit Done’.
In contrast, the government in Mauritius has in the wake of the general elections embarked on a nomination spree aimed at allocating prime jobs to the coterie. You name it, defeated party candidates or those who accepted not to stand at the general elections and loyal party members seem to have all been chosen to be rewarded with nominations at public expense to key posts such as ambassador, head of prime institutions of the State or state companies or to occupy the highest Constitutional posts of the country.
Government seems to ensure that there are basically no losers among loyal party members. The scale of this nomination spree is however unprecedented. This appalling example of poor governance has however been going on unchecked under successive governments and has been so detrimental to the performance and prospects of the country for too long.
It is not rocket science to understand the simple fact that every Tom, Dick or Harry cannot be entrusted with the responsibility of occupying key posts of the government Establishment, state companies and institutions or represent the country as ambassadors. The world is not only much more sophisticated but also requires extremely well-honed skills and expertise from those who hold key government and private sector posts if the country is to succeed in a more and more competitive world.
In a world where savvy economic diplomacy determines the economic and trade prospects of the country, we need seasoned and highly qualified career diplomats to represent the country in some of the key diplomatic outposts of the country such as the United States, the UN, the EU, the UK, India, China or the African Union.
For those of us who have participated in international trade negotiations on behalf of the private sector, the career diplomat ambassador of the country plays a key role of proactive and sustained engagement with the government of the host country. He also vigilantly monitors legislative and other decisions likely to impact our interests overseas and takes appropriate actions in consultations with capitals to uphold our interests. It is his acumen to grasp pointed technical issues fed in briefing papers and his ability to iron out difficulties and rally the support of our trading partners which help boost the opportunities and prospects of the country.
The nomination of sinecures as ambassadors or to key government posts basically undermines the thrust and success of the country’s actions and strategies at a time when the country faces so many daunting challenges in the context of the potent threats posed by climate change, the return of Chagos Archipelago to the sovereignty of Mauritius, the economic and trading interests of Mauritius in key negotiations with inter alia the EU, India, the UK, the US and regional economic entities.
On the economic front, one of the most alarming warning signs going forward is the growing gap between exponentially increasing government expenses fuelled by a plethora of costly projects such as Safe city and electoral promises to all and sundry costing billions of Rupees to the Public Exchequer against limited revenue inflows in a context of stunted economic growth and deteriorating economic fundamentals. These include a rising public debt and balance of trade deficit, the faltering performance of the main sectors of the economy and the serious threats posed to the financial services sector by the decision of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) to classify our financial services sector in category 2 which imposes a stricter and recurrent monitoring of investment flows from Mauritius. This could incite fund managers to shift their operations to jurisdictions listed by SEBI in category 1 which would be highly detrimental to the prospects of the sector.
To crown it all, the lopsided and inordinate government policy focus on real estate development and smart city projects have largely ring fenced private sector investment away from productive investments. While being highly lucrative for promoters richly endowed with land assets in prime locations, they have very limited beneficial fallouts and multiplier effect on the economy at large. The upshot is that the government needs to urgently give priority attention to the economy and a more rigorous management of economic fundamentals.
On the social front, the range of sordid crimes afflicting the country should be a wake call for government, society, religious bodies and socio-cultural organizations which should focus on their true calling of strengthening the moral compass of their flock and ethical values in society. Rising inequality, the undiminished toll of some 141 deaths in road accidents in 2019 compared to 2018 despite costly measures put in place by government, the unabated scale of drug trafficking in the country evidenced by the almost weekly interceptions of important hauls of diverse drugs including hard ones by the authorities and the pitfalls of the reform of the education system are some of the many social challenges facing the country.
The education reform has lowered standards, bridled the pursuit of excellence and failed to establish the required learning environment to hone and develop the intellect and full potential of every student. The school which has been a conduit for equality through education and a crucible for cementing nationhood and enabling students from all walks of life rub shoulders, bond and become friends is now a vector of inequality as those who can afford it are opting for private schools offering a more holistic and significantly more apt learning environment enabling students to develop the full potential of their intellect. The reform is a major step backwards.
The imperative of a new approach
A New Year means a new dawn. If we want to judiciously manage the many pitfalls and daunting challenges ahead, the country desperately needs a new approach and fundamental changes. As we look forward, the determinant factors likely to significantly improve the prospects for the country and a better future for the young are the tenor of the government policy framework and an unswerving government commitment to systematically choose through a transparent recruiting exercise the most qualified and talented Mauritians to efficiently implement them. For too long, the prospects of the country have been undermined by poor governance, political appointees in key strategic posts which seriously sap the brainstorming and managerial acumen of the government.
However, the initial indications are that not much is changing. The style of governance, the political landscape and the leaders of the main parties blissfully remain unchanged. This crippling status quo cannot cut the country loose from the cycle of subpar growth performance which has undermined the prospects of the country over the last decade.
This cannot go on. It is a recipe for recurring socio-economic setbacks and a clarion call for a scathing backlash from the people.
* Published in print edition on 27 December 2019