Interview: Milan Meetarbhan
‘The immediate concerns must be reinforcing effective parliamentary opposition and fighting the municipal elections’
* ‘Any government which boasts about being a full-fledged democracy listens to its people. This government does not do that’
In today’s interview, Milan Meetarbhan shares his views on Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2021, released recently, and according to which Mauritius remains the only African country that is a “full democracy”. One important issue, he raises is to what extent did the index reflect an actual assessment of governance? He says: ‘It is true that a historical analysis of our electoral process may yield positive results. However, if for instance the current composition of supervisory bodies is scrutinised and the professional, political and personal links of members with the ruling party are factored in, the assessment of the electoral process and the trust which people have in the process will be viewed differently.’ He also lays stress on the need for the Opposition to come together as a Parliamentary Caucus whilst maintaining their respective autonomy, ideology and policy preferences. ‘The immediate concerns, he adds, must be reinforcing effective parliamentary opposition and fighting the municipal elections. A futile debate at this stage on who would lead an alliance against the MSM whilst there is no agreement at all yet on the principle of an alliance or on what this alliance would stand for, is counter-productive…’
Mauritius Times: According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2021, released recently, Mauritius remains the only African country that is a “full democracy”. That’s a major boost for the government, even if the Opposition, the privately owned media and civil society may think differently about our democracy, don’t you think?
Milan Meetarbhan: Yes, it could give a boost to the government’s morale and they have already made sure that their mouthpieces blare this loud and clear. Whenever we talk of an index, we have to see who did it and what was the methodology used. The criteria may be assessed from a desk study or from field research. In the case of the EIU report, the criteria used for assessing the state of our democracy give the results that they give.
Mauritians have their own assessment based on what empirical evidence they have of what’s been happening in Parliament and in various institutions, various scandals and the way the law enforcement authorities have been dealing with these, on the “glaring disparities” noted in connection with the one electoral constituency for which details have been made public and much else that they have witnessed in recent years.
One important issue: where does governance fit in all this? To what extent did the index reflect an actual assessment of governance? To what extent does the report take on board an assessment of how good or bad is governance in the country and is better or worse than what’s it’s been so far?
I see that even in the private sector various “awards” and quotes are bandied about, followed by waves of congratulatory messages without people bothering to check the credibility of the awarding institution and the criteria used. Often these awards are literally bought and the narratives and the quotes are supplied by the recipients themselves.
I am not suggesting that this is the case with the EIU Reports, but I just want to draw attention to the fact that reliance on some indexes and awards can lead to wrong and unjustified decisions. I have even heard of reports of fake PHDs bought off the shelf from inexistent institutions followed by warm congratulations by those who are credible enough to believe in these charades.
Some people use indexes and awards for self-promotion because they know that the targets take things at face value and do not always read the small print.
* It would seem that the electoral process in place here would have been positively reviewed by the EIU. This comes as a surprise given the number of electoral petitions lodged following the last general elections… though it could be true that the Electoral Commission’s admission of discrepancies in Constituency No. 19 – and possibly elsewhere – might have come after the EIU conducted its survey of the state of our democracy?
I don’t know whether the methodology used involves taking on board current events such as those you mention. It is true that a historical analysis of our electoral process may yield positive results. The constitutional and legal frameworks as prescribed may also be assessed positively.
However, if for instance the current composition of supervisory bodies is scrutinised and the professional, political and personal links of members with the ruling party are factored in, the assessment of the electoral process and the trust which people have in the process will be viewed differently.
The statutory process may be sound, but public trust in those charged with administering or supervising the process is as important. A desk study of legislative texts and a field study of how things are being managed may lead to very different findings.
* One question which remains is: what happens next after the admission of “glaring discrepancies” as qualified by the Supreme Court with regard to the electoral process in Constituency No. 19, even if Ivan Collendavelloo will have won the election, as confirmed by the recount? Nobody, it seems, will be held accountable, and the Electoral Supervisory Commission has itself remained quiet to date…
I suppose that as far as legal challenges with respect to Constituency no 19 itself are concerned, we have reached the end of the road since the petitioner has resigned from her party a few days after the recount and she will not be making any further legal challenges. However, the wider debate on electoral processes remains open.
First, a lot of so-called “irregularities” or “human errors” that have come to light in the course of court proceedings and subsequently during the recount give rise to a number of questions. Did the same thing occur in other constituencies or was No. 19 an outlier and the numerous “errors” can be explained by exceptional circumstances in that particular constituency?
Second, did the authorities conduct a thorough audit of results communicated by returning officers, figures announced and/or published on polling day and immediately after counting and will they state if everything was in order and publish their findings?
Given that public confidence in the process has been shaken by what was told to the Court, what the Court itself said and what has come to light subsequently, it is important that the results of a review or analysis conducted after the elections be made public. Any attempt to conceal the audit of results nationwide will only lead to greater erosion of confidence and to lots of speculation.
* On the other hand, there’s also the raising of our flag on the outer islands of the Chagos Archipelago in the context of the Bleinheim Reef expedition organised by the government with a view to establishing and asserting Mauritius’ extended exclusive economic zone in its maritime boundary with the Maldives. Whether that expedition was necessary or not is besides the point now since one positive fallout – and not the least – has been its mediatic impact internationally. Isn’t that true?
What was initially described as a “scientific mission” to conduct a survey in view of submissions that have to be made to a Special Chamber of the International Tribunal on the Law of Sea (ITLOS) has turned out to be a highly publicised PR event. Given that the present strategy is to keep the pressure on the UK and the US to accept the award of the Arbitration Tribunal on the Marine Protected Area, the authoritative opinion of 14 of the 15 judges of the highest judicial organ of the United Nations and the recent ruling of an ITLOS tribunal, the cumulative effect of a series of initiatives taken recently will certainly add up to the pressure.
Our legal advisers, who have been with us since 2010 and have shown tremendous commitment to our cause, have once again advised on a course of action that helps to inch forward one at a time in this strategy. This may be for the long haul, but each step matters and what happened over the last couple of weeks was in essence such a step.
However, I wish to say that some statements made by Pravind Jugnauth and his ministers tend to show that the objective of the “scientific mission” was not only to advance the national cause at the international level but to make political capital domestically.
Jugnauth lamented that the local media had not given enough coverage to this historic event because he was no doubt frustrated by the fact that the rest of the local media had not followed the MBC in singing the praises of the leader who acted as the national hero defending our sovereignty.
What is worse is that his spokesperson at a press conference held on Saturday openly and brazenly sought to obtain political mileage for “Pravind Jugnauth and the MSM” from the fallout of the scientific mission.
It is fortunate that there has over the years been a large degree of national consensus on the Chagos issue and at a time when things are highly politicised in our country, the Chagos initiatives have on the whole benefited from bi-partisan support.
Any attempt to extract domestic political capital out of the Chagos issue and of taxpayer-funded initiatives,is bound to backfire. An end to the political consensus around the issue will weaken our leverage as a nation.
Cheap politics do not rhyme with struggle for territorial sovereignty.
* As regards the long and determined struggle Mauritius has been waging to regain its sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago, how do see things shaping up on that front, especially in light of the new geopolitical interests of the major powers – the old as well as the new or emerging ones – in this part of the world?
The outcome of our case against Maldives will be a matter of law to be determined by a tribunal. Though the tribunal has already given a ruling which supports our sovereignty claim, its decision on the outer limit of the Chagos archipelago, which will determine the extent of our Exclusive Economic Zone, will be based on the interpretation of the relevant provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Indeed, the Tribunal will have to be satisfied that Brenham Reef meets the requirements of UNCLOS for purposes of determining archipelagic baselines from which the EEZ is measured. If it does not, then our dispute with the Maldives over delimitation of overlapping EEZs will be assessed differently.
The Indian Ocean is recognised as a zone of significant geo-strategic importance. Not only are two major regional powers vying for influence and markets — though only one of them is a coastal state — there are outside powers with military bases in the Indian ocean rim. A large chunk of international trade is carried out through the Indian Ocean and large oil supplies also go through this ocean. Over 80% of oil carried by sea and over 100,000 commercial ships pass through the Indian Ocean every year.
In an ocean with such sea routes, there are four critically important access waterways and who controls them is crucial. So given the economic and military stakes, the Indian Ocean will for the foreseeable future remain of major interest.
* The old colonial powers seem to be very touchy about any threats to their interests in the Indian Ocean as evidenced France’s sudden classification of Mauritius into the list of “destinations en zone ‘écarlate’ » and the subsequent hit to our tourism industry following the Prime Minister’s reference to another contentious territory – Tromelin, which is administered as part of the “French Southern and Antarctic Lands, a French Overseas Territory”, but over which Mauritius claims sovereignty as well. The French reaction is a brutal reminder that we should tread carefully, right?
Whilst I agree that for all players in the Indian Ocean zone, the stakes are high and as you say they would be very touchy about any threats to their interests, I do not necessarily believe that there is any link between the statement about Tromelin and the French decision to include Mauritius in their “zone ecarlate”. There could be a nexus but not necessarily, as far as I know.
Anyway, whilst Mauritius sitting right in the middle of an ocean with huge potential for resources and strategically important for commercial and defence interests, must tread carefully in its diplomatic moves, yet it cannot give up its territorial claims for areas which are considered as part of our territory under our Constitution.
Our country hosts two important Indian Ocean organisations which have established their headquarters here and we must make sure that our Indian Ocean policy, if and when we have one, secures our privileged position and national interests.
* The current government has been in office for slightly more than two years. Do you get the feeling that besides the occasional hiccups and fire-fighting, the Pravind Jugnauth-led government has set for itself a well-defined political and government agenda that’s being pursued in a determined manner unhindered by any opposition whatsoever be it from civil society, media, political parties?
I do believe that the government has a clear political agenda and that it is engaged in a relentless pursuit of its political goals. However, I am not aware that it has a well-defined government agenda, a policy agenda for the short- and medium-term in view of serious challenges both at home and globally.
Since the political agenda prevails over a responsible national policy agenda, lavish spending on projects which earn short-term political capital but could seriously jeopardise the long-term economic interests of the country, show to what extent political objectives trump national objectives.
I do not believe that the systematic appointments of cronies to top positions in our institutions is a government agenda. No government would want to weaken its institutions to such an alarming extent. Any government which boasts about being a full-fledged democracy listens to its people. This government does not do that. The conduct of proceedings in the National Assembly and the deleterious role of the MBC may be decried by the people but the government will press on and even reward those at the helm. Some respected economists say that we do not have a central bank in this country anymore. Is that part of a government agenda or is it something else?
* There’s a different spectacle on the opposite side of the fence: loose cannons going for each other’s throats in public view, and in the background, opposition parties, especially the mainstream ones, appearing confused about the way forward. How would you react to that?
I believe that there should be a robust working arrangement between opposition parties in Parliament. But having an Opposition Caucus to coordinate parliamentary action is not the same thing as an alliance for future elections. These are two very different things. The ruling party accuses the opposition of being divided but when it wants to work together the same opposition is treated as a “ramassis”.
In any case, the people elected different parties to form the opposition to the present government. Two of these parties were in an alliance for the last election and the third one fought the election opposing that alliance. So, the people cannot expect that immediately after the election these parties should become allies in opposition to the ruling party. But an Opposition Caucus would in the present circumstances be in the national interest as it would enable better coordination and more effective opposition on policy issues and on holding the government accountable.
* There is also the view that the good thing about the current situation for the Labour Party is that the fortunes of all the other opposition parties remain hinged to what it decides to do regarding the next elections. But the contrary could also be true since the LP might also need the support of the other parties to be able to challenge the MSM next time round. What do you think?
The Labour Party is the largest group in the opposition. If we look at the official results of the last elections, the Alliance consisting of Labour and PMSD was by far the largest opposition group as per the wishes of the electorate. Labour and PMSD were not competing against each other but they were competing against the MMM.
The fact that these parties can now, whilst maintaining their respective autonomy, ideology and policy preferences come together as a Parliamentary Caucus and coordinate their action vis-à-vis the ruling party would be perfectly in line with a mature parliamentary system.
Do they need to look beyond the Parliamentary Caucus, at a political alliance for future elections, that’s another kettle of fish? The municipal elections are long overdue and the “only full-fledged democracy in Africa” cannot postpone these elections indefinitely. The opposition parties would want to find a common understanding on how to send a strong message to the population and to the world by ensuring that the opposition takes over control of the municipalities.
* There is however the issue of the leadership of the Labour Party – transitional or not – that remains unresolved to this day. That’s a major dilemma, isn’t it, since the electorate’s vote is usually biased in favour of who’ll sit in the prime ministerial chair?
Yes, even though we have a parliamentary system, yet the elections tend to be organised as if we had a presidential system. The MSM’s political strategy is based on a personality cult. The MSM wants to win elections based on branding their leader as the good guy, the soft-spoken guy from the next block. Branding is for marketing purposes and is often around a manufactured product for purposes of the promotion campaign but does not always reflect the real product. But it can still work. At times.
Though the opposition must be ready for general elections at any time, yet a futile debate at this stage on who would lead an alliance against the MSM whilst there is no agreement at all yet on the principle of an alliance or on what this alliance would stand for, is counter-productive.
The immediate concerns must be reinforcing effective parliamentary opposition and fighting the municipal elections. If the parties agree to maintain the common tactical platform after the municipal elections, then they will first have to agree on a common policy platform, engage in public debate with the people on this platform and then decide on an electoral strategy.
* Published in print edition on 25 February 2022
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