Will the opposition parties offer a credible and strong alternative to the majority in power?

Whether the population sees an alternative building up depends largely on opposition parties putting their collective efforts into a credible and energized thrust both inside and outside Parliament

By Jan Arden

Hon Padayachy, Minister of Finance, perhaps influenced by the venerable Professor of a “love and care” economy, Lord Desai, undertook in Budget 2020-21 to raid our national reserves at the Central Bank for Rs 160 bn, 80 of which were to fund his budget deficit and another 80 billion towards enterprise support without much transparency.

But much worse was lurking in government’s mystifying bag as the Minister of Finance proposed in the same budget nothing less than the replacement of the National Pensions Fund by a tax-based CSG without seeing the necessity of technical reports or consultations. Faced with a chorus of protests and a pending judicial review, Government or the Finance maestro has backpedalled, bringing to Parliament a hastily drafted Social Contributions Bill which aims to give the official kiss of death to the NPF. The exercise is seen as a brazen attempt to concoct a formula that might give credence to the epic campaign promise to the elderly about the doubling of their universal pension entitlement.

Government is of course entitled to reform and consolidate our universal pension scheme but we would expect meaningful consultations with the opposition, the actuarial profession, civil society and NGOs rather than the mighty swipe of a furtive pen in a Budget Speech. As matters stand, more considerable headwinds are likely for Government both in Parliament, where Opposition MPs look likely to be expelled at the drop of no hat, and outside on the streets as the population is better informed of personal implications.

The revised CSG Bill of Minister Padayachy, added to the rampant impact of runaway prices and the array of new taxes in his June budget, has at least had the effect of pushing the parliamentary opposition to renew their collaboration at least around those thematic issues.

For some time now, population annoyance with the governing establishment and their “business as usual” come what may attitude have not found a satisfactory political outlet. Neither the social media activities, nor the flurry of judiciary enquiries spearheaded by the “Avengers”, nor even the massive post-Wakashio manifestation in the streets of Port-Louis seem to have dented government’s Teflon attitude. Duck your heads, tighten the screws and keep going seems to be the motto. This does not always hold good but that only happens when popular pressure and discontent forces the adoption of fire-fighting and other stop-gap measures.

Press conferences and Facebook Lives

As the ever astute former Minister Dharam Gokhool remarked ‘Press conferences and Facebook Lives do not win elections’ and suggests that there is some way to go for the Opposition to win the hearts and minds of the people. In the face of the people’s difficulties in their livelihoods and employment, the inability of Opposition parties to work together and shake the haughtiness of government has been frustrating. It has been attributed, rightly or wrongly, to party and political calculations and personal egos taking precedence over national interests.

The self-titled Alliance de l’Espoir, by excluding its natural, some would say, its only credible locomotive, the Labour Party, had murkied the waters in a rather surprising twist. Questions of leadership for the 2024 general elections that had been sidelined effectively, were suddenly brought to the fore in a stage-managed show where Paul Berenger was seen as the prime mover. Be that as it may, we are entitled to wonder whether Opposition maestros, banking on new arrival Nando Bodha – a long-time MSM and SAJ stalwart – and the media activism of Bhadain, had decided that they had enough traction on their own steam. It seems that they are now united in wishing that the LP returns to the Opposition table and brings its weight at least in Parliament to the pressures on government.

It is probable that the divisive actions engineered then may have left deep scars which need to be clarified in their resumed confidential exchanges. Without such clarity, the Alliance leaders may not be best placed to provide a “welcome back” side-chair to the LP. But we are not privy to how and under what terms the latter may accept to lead the Opposition back to its previous state of working unity and restore confidence between partners and with the population. It has to go through stages most probably, and this CSG Bill may well provide parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition the stepping stone it needed to begin the pathway of reconstruction on clearer and steadier grounds.

Navin Ramgoolam’s leadership

Much has been said or alluded about Navin Ramgoolam’s leadership of the LP, even before Paul Berenger made his rather rash intervention at the launch of the MMM-PMSD-Bodha-Bhadain alliance, later termed Alliance de l’Espoir. But even the MMM and the PMSD would have to recognise that the Labour Party has generally held its shape despite the bruising loss of two successive electoral battles, the second of which, in 2019, has been the subject of controversies and electoral petitions which are only now being heard in the courts. It has lost no MPs or even pre-electoral party candidates to the sirens from a government that is not loathe to dish out freebies. Experienced analysts and observers estimate those core sympathizers somewhere around 25-30% of the electorate globally, even if they acknowledge that the future of the LP leadership structure needs to be addressed.

Such an electoral base entrenched over years of loyalty should neither have been taken for granted or dismissed by neophytes or manoeuvering old hands. It is insufficient on its own or in a triangular setting to carry the day but indispensable to any attempt to unify the Opposition for a credible assault on Government House. The setback of 2019 was essentially a difficult pitch made worse by the divided front offered by the Opposition against ruthless adversaries. Those who masterminded such division within the opposition to privilege their party calculations rather than larger national interests have themselves to blame for the current predicament and they should be wary of barking again up the wrong trees. Like the MMM, the LP has its own leadership issue to address but should that not be left to the collective wisdom and workings of each party which know they have to maintain unity while paving the way for a future that acknowledges the generational and political aspirations of their cadres?

By inaugurating the cabinet ministerial post of “Minister Mentor” for its late figurehead SAJ, the MSM has perhaps unwittingly opened up new avenues in the great game of political alliances which had traditionally been limited to the key posts of a largely honorary President, the PM, the Vice-PM and the deputy PMs. While the MSM no longer holds that Mentor card, could it turn into a game-changer for an Opposition looking for a common platform but seems to have many aspiring heads for political responsibilities in the national interest? That may be entirely speculative and certainly premature, but the possibilities opened up would certainly not have escaped the LP politburo or even the MMM.

Restoring credibility

Leadership issues for 2024 can perhaps be shelved again but that is only part of the equation to restore credibility of a platform that aims to provide an alternative to the population. Credibility needs to be reinforced by a common agreement on key values, a manifest of key themes that would seal any future working arrangement and herald a new order and way of conducting business. At this juncture, and even nearer elections perhaps, nobody needs or reads a 100-page detailed manifesto, but, more efficaciously, the six or seven key themes that would drive a unified opposition and deliver the new political, management and institutional culture that large fractions of the population expect and demand. Each theme could be supported by deliverable pledges summed in one page and that should be achievable over the coming months.

Credibility, if the damaging temptations of divisive party politicking and jockeying are reasonably settled, will require reaching out to grassroots and the actual people, the electoral base supports who have been patiently keeping their frustrations in check. The consumer NGOs, trade unions and civil society can raise the tempo but calling for general elections at this early stage could be unproductive and damaging. The horizons of municipal elections may be getting nearer and offer the opportunity for a joint Opposition platform to roll out its electoral machinery and reach out to those disenchanted with MSM policies and practices in office. That will be for electoral politburos to work out and sort out the inevitable pebbles if national interests are to retake the fore.

The population’s judgment on how government handled the twin catastrophe, sanitary and economic, will be balanced by an equal query on what credible alternative the Opposition can provide. Unprincipled deals, fire-fighting and emergency procurements have eroded government credentials. The financial repercussions of the Betamax affair, the rupee devaluation, rising prices and the impression that government will make free and liberal use of our central bank reserves and pension funds, have piled the pressure on the MSM and its helpers.

Whether the population sees an alternative building up depends largely on Opposition parties putting their collective efforts into a credible and energized thrust both inside and outside Parliament.

* Published in print edition on 20 July 2021

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