Most people will agree that trust in government and in politicians has reached an all-time low. This is not a phenomenon confined to a few countries only. Democracies around the world are, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, distrusted by a majority of their citizens; this was almost 80% of the people in 2018. The trust deficit locally is evidenced by the rising abstention rate at most elections, starting from 1995 with 20%, and reaching around 23% in 2019. If that trend were to continue, fewer Mauritians will trust their politicians and political institutions, resulting in ineffective government – “illegitimate” according to the opposition.
The present government was voted to power by only 37% of those who turned out to cast their votes – an electoral victory that should not have given great comfort to its leaders (and that has been challenged in court by the opposition), and one that it should have set out to fix since its early days in power. After an initial success at managing the challenges of the Covid-19 threat – though marred by suspicions concerning the timing of the lockdown, allegedly decided to allow some VVIPs to fly back to the country in good time – its governance of the country has been marked by a series of scandals involving members of the government and their protégés that it could have done without. Whether it was about the “emergency procurement” of medical supplies and equipment (running into more than one billion rupees from dubious suppliers in some cases) to the St Louis Gate affair which led to the revocation of the former Deputy Prime minister, they all added up to diminish the social capital that the successful control of the pandemic was building up.
The latest downgrade follows upon the delayed response of the government to the shipwreck of the MV Wakashio off Pointe d’Esny on 25 July. The subsequent oil spill in the region 12 days later could have been averted, according to experts, if immediate measures had been taken – notwithstanding weather conditions – to pump out the oil from the ship. The reaction to the delay has been all manner of speculations and allegations in the press and on social media about suspicious goings-on since the day the ship ran aground and thereafter. The latest mishap is the death of several dolphins on the eastern coasts. It is inevitable that not only environmental campaigners but even the people at large would link these deaths to the oil spill or to the authorities’ decision to sink the ship’s stem. The cause may not have as yet been firmly established by a post-mortem, but it is quite likely that the official report would be met with scepticism by the people given the trust deficit that has set in, widening further the gap between the government and the people.
In a contribution on ‘trust and politicians’, Mark Evans, Professor of Governance at the University of Canberra argues that ‘weakening political trust erodes authority and civic engagement, reduces support for evidence-based public policies. This also creates the space for the rise of authoritarian-populist forces or other forms of independent representation’.
The major challenge that the government is facing now is how to recoup the lost trust and to reverse the continuing downward trend. Definitely there is a need for more openness and for giving the right information and answers that would lift the opaque veil that is surrounding this whole incident. Did Minister Sudheer Maudhoo genuinely think people would believe him when he said that the death of the dolphins was not due to the oil pollution? Wouldn’t it have been better to admit that the cause was not known for certain as yet but that expert opinion was awaited and would be communicated to the people as soon as it was available?
That, in fact, is the crux of the matter: the communication gap that is feeding into the trust deficit. People would be loathe to trust a government that has lost its mojo in less than a year of its successfully having returned to power. And that would make governing difficult, an uphill task to convince people of the soundness of government’s policies, what with the extra-parliamentary opposition that is made up of the triad of defeated parties that Labour Party, PMSD and MMM constitute.
Faced with all this, the government with more than four years to go has yet time to make amends and corrections, be more forthcoming and truthful so as to try and regain credibility. And if in a spirit of national interest it would not hesitate to rope in the best advice locally available about the way forward from wherever that comes, that would certainly be a start to build back the vital element of trust without which governing will continue to be difficult. The ball is in government’s court.