In the Spirit of Unilateralism


By Jan Arden

If confirmation was needed that the government’s preferred way of running the country is by unilateral imposition, it came in its recent handling of a number of issues. Some may feel that government should have its unfettered way on the basis of its numerical supremacy in Parliament. Therefore its unilateral use of Standing Orders and legislative processes to ram through major legislation, even on issues of national interest, is immaterial. In that spirit of unilateralism, many regulations and some pieces of legislation that have been enacted with minimal or lip-service consultations in Education, Public Health, Social Security or Family Welfare have generated such controversies, redrafting and backpedaling that the general impression has been one of amateurism if not suspect motivations.

The siphoning of the country’s accumulated Central Bank reserves was no doubt necessary to steer many players in the business sector out of pandemic-related troubles – but the terms of such bail-out from public funds to otherwise profitable concerns would have deserved greater transparency, unless unavoidable for imperative commercial reasons. The handling of the exit strategy from the financial mess at Air Mauritius since 2019, leading to voluntary administration, compounded by ravages of international travel during the ongoing pandemic, has cost to-date unknown billions. Vital questions about the necessity of the superstructure Airport Holdings Ltd to oversee and manage all air flight and airport activities remain shrouded in fuzziness and bask in the same spirit of unilateralism, although massive public funds and employee welfare or futures are concerned.

The Computer Security or the Offshore Petroleum Bills are two latest examples where complex questions that deserved fuller and less expeditious examination, are being pushed through with a haste that is hard to justify. Several reasons could be put forward to explain government’s constant preference for unilateral imposition.

The first may have to do with its history and the conditions associated with the founding of the MSM as a dissident but powerful split from the MMM in the short-lived MMM-PSM regime of 1982. Tempers and characters forged in those days would certainly have left a lasting impression in SAJ’s legacy at the helm of party and country, even if later alliances of both the MSM and the MMM, obeying to vicissitudes and vagaries of time, made for a succession of political alliances and misalliances since 1991. Staying in power and holding on to the power seat of PM became cardinal quests.

The scale of the economy, of public sector contracts and the irruption of “money politics” in political and media campaigns has added fuel to that already volatile mix and raised stakes to unprecedented levels. But while many, even grudgingly, would admit or admire SAJ’s respect for laws and constitution and the protocolar necessities of a democratic state, these normative considerations may have been succeeded by a state of mind with little patience for negotiating or building consensus, even more so when national issues are at stake. Why bother consult for constitutional or important appointments if government or the PM will decide anyway, seems to exemplify the new motto, as in the case of recent appointments of political aides and associates by the President to institutions like the Electoral Supervisory Commission.

It is an almost inevitable consequence of unilateralism that government and MSM analysts believe it acceptable or profitable politically to maintain a permanent state of tension and a “them and us” attitude vis-a-vis the opposition forces both in the National Assembly and outside. Building trust, confidence, respect and consensus cannot be said to have been high on the parliamentary agenda and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court may decide to define some boundaries, even if the Court traditionally refrains from interference in those august settings where every Opposition MPs right to voice their say and ask questions should be respected.

Not only has this done little to inspire public confidence in the government, it has also nurtured a divided opinion in the country and raised many questions about policies, competencies or the direction it is taking. Nowhere has the mix of shallow competencies, lack of transparency, deficient institutions, tainted procurement procedures, tweaking of data to suit political narratives been more apparent than in the handling of public health services throughout the pandemic, giving way to wildfire rumours and a generalized if not deadly trust deficit. Have we been cutting corners, been blinded by the Delta variant’s virulence, accumulated stocks of unusable or ineffective vaccine lots – these are a few of the many questions that are troubling citizens.

Government certainly wields power but that doesn’t seem to be translating into showing the leadership that is sufficient or needed to effectively meet the country’s challenges. And the correlate is an increasingly worrying trend of unilateralism, as the renewed attempt to strictly confine social media exemplifies. Why is it that despite a Westminster inspired constitution, an independent judiciary or a largely active press, democratic structures and processes appear to be failing us? The danger is that while the government rules it does not govern, if its primary focus remains on its core sympathizers. If governing without consensus, through unilateral imposition, has become a familiar trait of the ruling party, other habits it has formed contribute to its distinct way of running the government. The ingrained tendency to shift blame on something or someone else whereby all present challenges are blamed on past governments, on the pandemic or on other factors extraneous to itself no longer sells at this stage of the mandate.

Building more roads, roundabouts, fly-overs, bridges, hospitals or even social housing are expected activities of governments. That is, after all, what they are voted in for, while they make sure the burden is shared equitably and does not become and place an unsustainable one on succeeding generations if they have to repay our debt-financed activities. That is neither sufficient nor commensurate with the leadership required in the tough times we are facing collectively.

* Published in print edition on 9 November 2021

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