“Pre-electoral alliances are not credible anymore…

Interview: Kugan Parapen, Economics Spokesperson – Resistans ek Alternativ

… given the unpredictability of the future elections, it would be in the interest of all traditional political parties to push for a proper electoral reform”

We asked Kugan Parapen, a young economist and currently a Fund Manager with AXYS Group, who was fielded as a candidate of Resistans ek Alternativ in No. 18 by-election, for his views on a number of critical issues facing the country as it gears up to the 2019 general election. For him the current regime’s report card to date is unimpressive and in fact is worsening because of its giving in to the traditional economic elite instead of protecting the interest of the needy. In this context the clamour for an ethnic census is a no-brainer as it does not address the real issues common to communities who share the same neighbourhood space. He feels that unless innovative approaches are spearheaded by the government instead of depending too heavily on the saturated traditional sectors, the outlook especially for the common man is rather grim.

Mauritius Times: It might take quite some time before election fever really starts taking hold of the country, given that the current government might have yet other trump cards to play before elections are held. There’s another budget in 2019 and, as announced, an increase in all likelihood of old-age pensions. One would therefore expect the government to put all the chances on its side. Do you think these will play out to its advantage?

Kugan Parapen: Any incumbent government going into fresh elections is always advantaged compared to opposition parties in its ability to have recourse to ‘l’appareil d’Etat’ in the run-up to the elections. We can be sure that this government will have no second thoughts when it comes to using the state to propel its election campaign come 2019. The lure of another stint in government will be too tempting to resist as far as using taxpayers’ money to garner votes.

We get the impression that the MSM will be relying on a similar strategy to the one used in 2014 to try to make it two in a row. Retirees played a crucial role in 2014 as the promise of an old age pension at Rs 5,000 was a real hit with this category of voters. By now promising to increase that pension even higher, there can be no doubt that Jugnauth wants to hold on to this voting bank.

For all the talk of the youth representing an important segment of voters, it is to be observed that it is a highly unpredictable voting group. The recent by-election in Quatre Bornes/Belle Rose highlighted the significant disenfranchisement of the youth of Mauritius with respect to politics. They may make the numbers but in reality, many are not even registered to vote or have no willingness to participate in elections. A You Only Live Once (YOLO) syndrome, I presume. On the contrary, elder voters are much more disciplined and faithful to their traditional parties.

There have also been promises of up to 10,000 new recruits in the civil sector by a Minister. But at the end of the day, one need not forget that the Alliance Lepep was not a natural choice for many but rather the consequence of a national opposition to the Ramgoolam/Berenger proposed democratic hold-up. The next elections could gear up to be one of the most open general elections that Mauritius has ever faced. Pre-electoral alliances are not credible anymore, and given the unpredictability of the future elections, it would be in the interest of all traditional political parties to push for a proper electoral reform or else a few of them could face an irreversible downfall. 

* We do not know exactly what the people really think of the Lepep government performance after four years in office; its decision not to participate in the No 18 by-election has helped it to avoid any kind of censure by the electorate. But if you had to draw up a report card for this government, what would it tell us?

The fact that the population cannot sanction an incumbent government until the next elections is in itself a farce of the representative democratic system. To recall, representative democracy is the relinquishing of democratic rights between two elections whereby electors transfer their democratic powers to representatives. In the Mauritian context, that would mean each voter transferring their right to three elected Members of Parliament (MPs) per constituency between any two general elections and relying on those MPs to decide on the voter’s behalf. Rezistans ek Alternativ is a long proponent of participative democracy whereby the ultimate power resides in the electors’ hands at any time. The Right to Recall failing MPs will feature prominently in the party’s electoral programme come the next elections.

Last Tuesday, mid-term elections were held in the United States with the American voters sanctioning President Trump and his policies to some extent. His Republican Party lost control of the House of Representatives and could only hold on to the Senate after many Republican Senators marginally won their election in traditional Republican strongholds. The ability to indirectly sanction an elected President half way through his mandate is very important in democracy and should not be underestimated. See it as an hybrid between representative and participative democracy. Introducing midterm elections would be very useful in reinforcing democracy in Mauritius, especially given the recent history with regards to Municipal elections.

In 2000, 2005 and 2014, following comfortable wins in the general elections, incumbent governments held municipal elections within less than 12 months of their victory and ensured a clean sweep of municipalities. Once the municipal elections are in the bag, the incumbent governments can then contemplate four full years in power without being accountable or sanctionable by the population and can thus exercise absolute power at both national and regional levels. A perfect recipe for plundering and looting if you ask me! 

* What about the Report Card?

Coming back to a report card for this government, I would say it’s abysmal. First and foremost because of the incompetency of the whole cabinet. I would award the Gold medal of incompetency to Pravind Jugnauth himself. We toil hard as Mauritians and pay our taxes but what do we get in return? One must not forget that the Prime Minister is also the Minister of Finance. He earns close to Rs 7,000,000 annually to get the job done. I mean that is not peanuts. He earns more than the Prime Minister of India and the Russian President respectively. And what does he do as our Minister of Finance and Prime Minister? He creates an Economic Development Board (EDB) and pays some Rs 13,000,000 annually to the Chairman of that Board. I do not have the remuneration details for the rest of the board. In any case, is he some kind of middleman? Isn’t he supposed to be the one implementing the vision of his government? By appointing an Economic Development Board, he is basically telling us that he has got no vision for this country as a Minister of Finance and that this job has to be outsourced. A proper square peg in a round hole! 

Pravind Jugnauth’s legacy will be one of using foreign money to fund his governmental projects (and at the same time weakening the sovereignty of the Republic and its fiscal resilience), in addition to exempting the historical economic elite from paying billions in taxes through the scandalous Smart City Act while burdening the local population with layer after layer of indirect taxes. All this amid the shameful and shameless coastal and oceanic grabbing of the natural resources of Mauritius to be offered to private local and foreign interests. Can the minimum wage mask this appalling reality? Surely not… 

* One emotion-laden issue that’s being debated these days relates to the need to hold ethnic census. There is the view that the PMSD’s agitation as well as that of a few members of the Catholic Church is giving a communal colouring to the debate. However Mgr Piat, as head of the Church, has expressed his opposition to ethnic census, and so have Paul Berenger and other party leaders. What’s your take on that?

I think we need to go to the source to get a proper understanding of how things evolved. The State of Mauritius, as a signatory of the international Convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, has to submit regular reports to the United Nations regarding its compliance to the convention. Earlier this year, Affirmative Action (AA), a so-called local apolitical and secular civil rights association, submitted a counter report to the United Nations where it highlighted numerous issues which it felt went against the Convention. 

Among those issues was that AA felt that political alliances have continuously based their list of candidates on the findings of the last ethnic census ever carried in Mauritius in 1972. And that they felt that the situation has evolved since and that by not recognising this evolution, Creoles, as they put it, are being discriminated against. They also point to the categorisation of the Creole population under the catchall ‘Population Générale’ as being another discrimination against the civil and political rights of the Creoles. The counter report also includes numerous examples of alleged racial discriminations against a particular section of the population. 

In its concluding observations on the periodic reports submitted by Mauritius, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, after having taken cognisance of the counter report submitted by AA, says that it regrets that the State of Mauritius does not collect disaggregated data based on ethnic belonging as it is of the view that such data would be helpful in assessing whether there are cases of racial discrimination within the Mauritian society. From my understanding, that is where the whole debate about having an updated ethnic census emanates. 

It would be difficult, I believe, to have a debate around the need for an ethnic census without having elements of communal colouring to the debate. But fifty years after independence, we, as Mauritians, must be able to have a rational and mature conversation about any subject, including those of ethnic nature in all serenity if we are to successfully found a true nation. 

I, for one, believe that there’s no smoke without fire. After all, this is not the first time that we are speaking about racial discrimination in this country. Those who know their history will surely be more than aware of the Bissoondoyals’ Jan Andolan movement in the mid twentieth century as Mauritians of mostly Indian origin came together to fight against racial discrimination. I am told of a certain period in this country’s history where one had to convert to a particular religion, associated with a particular race, to be able to be employed in the public sector. 

Has yesterday’s oppressed become today’s oppressor though? When 44% of a population votes against independence, it will always be a challenge for the resulting independent nation to live in ‘peace, justice and harmony’ in the immediate aftermath. The path to independence has left many scars which are yet to heal and there are enough reasons to believe that equality of chances remains an elusive concept in today’s Mauritius despite some strides in the right direction. 

With this in mind, I sincerely doubt that the holding of an ethnic census in 2018 represents the adequate solution to the prevalence of discriminatory practices. France has refused to go down the path of ethnic classification since at least 1978 as many believe that such classification is in contradiction with the base principle of equality and equal treatment of French citizens itself. Germany, Italy and Rwanda have also decided against ethnic censuses. Any idea why? Three hints: Fascism, Holocaust, Genocide! There must surely be more constructive solutions…

* Nation building will no doubt always be a work in progress. But are there things, the doable, we should attend to in all earnest and which will help move the country forward?

The idea of ethnic census is in complete opposition to the idea of nation building. Interestingly the origins of ‘affirmative actions’ are rooted in the United States in an Executive Order signed by President John Kennedy in 1961 which included a provision that government contractors ‘take affirmative actions to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, colour or national origin.’ That was at a time when equality of rights was still not a reality in the United States. Indeed, it is only in 1964 that the Civil Rights Act came into being in the United States and effectively banned racial discrimination and segregation. 

Truth be told, the Mauritian Constitution, through Article 16, already provides for protection against discrimination. However, how we ensure that such an Article is truly respected and implemented is the real challenge. And that is where I believe a lot of emphasis should be placed in our bid to move the country forward. Among its concluding observations, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination pointed to the inadequacy of our judicial system in dealing with racial discrimination cases.

If we can ensure that each and every Mauritian is given the same opportunity as any other Mauritian in all circumstances, then there is no need whatsoever for any ethnic or racial census of any sort. However this is easier said than done. Proving the existence of discrimination can be extremely difficult at times. I believe we should focus our attention on how to effectively ensure equal opportunities to all at all times. This should become the cornerstone of our nation building process. We need an inclusive state, not one of privileged and non-privileged individuals.

Pravind Jugnauth promised the Freedom of Information Act to the population in 2014. Where is it? By not promulgating such an important piece of legislation, Jugnauth is clearly siding with the camp of those who do not want equal rights for all Mauritians. At the end of the day, there are many existing forms of discrimination in Mauritius. The racial discrimination which is being put forward is in many ways directly linked with political discrimination in that most traditional political parties are known to represent a particular religious/ethnic segment of the population.

Is there any traditional party which represents the Mauritian population at this moment in time? No! And this is why emerging parties like Rezistans ek Alternativ are essential to our political scene. We provide an alternative to all those Mauritians who want to come together and move forward as equal citizens, irrespective of race, religion and colour.

When you become a member of the party, you leave your religious beliefs at the entrance. There is no space for religion within the realm of politics. Religion is a private matter and should in no way interfere with politics. As a responsible citizen who votes at each election, one should worry about choosing the best candidates to improve the quality of life of the citizen in her/his neighbourhood. Voting for someone having the same religion beliefs or same ethnic origins as you is a poor intellectual decision.

At the end of the day, your neighbourhood issues like poor road infrastructure, insecurity, lack of water supply are shared by your neighbours, irrespective of their religion or ethnic background. What you have in common with your neighbourhood is the class you belong to, not the ethnicity or the religion! Working class people face the same issues because they tend to share the same lifestyle, the same neighbourhoods and hence the same problems. People of the same ethnic background do not share the same lifestyle, nor the same neighbourhoods and hence not the same problems. Food for thought!

* Let’s now talk about the economy. Our Global Business sector has been criticized by African peers lately, the State Bank has also been in the news for the bad reasons, public debt is increasing at an alarming rate according to some economists, there is nothing new coming up in terms of new pillars although they might be in the works… What are your feelings about the state of our economy?

Our economy is becoming more and more dependent on the offshore sector and the directly linked real estate and financial services sector. With both nearly representing nearly 20% of our GDP and increasing, we’ve already crossed a dangerous threshold, which is that of systemic dependency. These new sectors are now so significant that one cannot neutralise them without endangering the economy and society. How big will the financial services sector be in ten years? And how much will that sector contribute to the public coffers? Those are the questions we ought to address and shape in coming years.

In the City of London, it is usually said that half of the taxes collected in the UK emanates from the City. That is certainly not the case in Mauritius. The sector’s fiscal contribution as a percentage of its size is nowhere as high as it should be. The fiscal burden is so skewed towards the working population that it beggars belief. Most Mauritians think in absolute terms when it comes to progress in life. So, if one salary goes up by Rs 1,500, one is happy. This whole concept of cost of living increasing by Rs 2,000 at the same time is absent in the thought process of many. So, many Mauritians are absolutely sure that there is no better place to live than in Mauritius and that successive governments have worked wonders for the average Mauritian. Little does he know that his wellbeing is being sacrificed so that the capitalist masters can maximise their profits. He will even say ‘mersi misie’ at the end of the day.

* However tourism is doing quite well, what with the low paid jobs and the best beaches of the country; a strong Mauritian fishing industry has not come up to this day, and we are selling fishing rights in our exclusive economic zone to the Europeans and the Japanese. Seychelles is doing better and moving quite fast to boost its blue ocean economy. What’s constraining Mauritius to go as fast?

The biggest constraint is of political nature. Our successive governments know only of one recipe for economic growth. And this is foreign direct investment. In so doing, we have created a very unhealthy economy. We have a chronic dual deficit syndrome in that both our current account and budget are always in deficit. In so doing, we have been selling and thus privatising our natural resources over time and will continue to do so until there is a paradigm shift in our approach to economic development.

Our government refuses to recognise that the tourism industry is saturated and that we need to come up with new ideas about how to develop our economy. With respect to the fishing industry, we have sold our oceans to the European vessels from France and Spain for less than Rs 25 million per year. This represents less than 10% of the value of the plundering going on in our waters. This is similar to what has been done over the years in Africa whereby mining rights to the riches of the African continent are sold to foreign powers for peanuts.

With respect to our oceans, we possess a sustainable resource which could be beneficial to our economy for generations to come provided we ensure that there is no abusive exploitation of the resource. However, given the current overfishing trends by foreign interests in our waters, much of the rich and diverse marine life present in our oceans could face extinction in the years to come. The Japanese have depleted the stock of blue fin tunas in the Pacific in a matter of years and they are now coming after the yellow fin tunas in the Indian Ocean. They ‘gifted’ us a radar but we all know there is nothing as a free gift in international relations.

By all accounts, we are on the verge of losing Agalega to the Indian navy while our government tried to sell our one and only port to Dubai some years back. Add to that the failed attempt to privatise our nationality earlier this year and you have an idea of the kind of vision being put forward.

With an ecological disaster linked to climate change on the horizon, we need to adapt to the new realities of our world. For example, a plastic free Mauritius should be high on the agenda and while it would spell the end of the plastic industries in Mauritius, it would also give birth to new emerging local industries which would provide local alternatives to the plastic conundrum. History tells us that being a pioneer in new emerging trends confers to the pioneering agent a first mover advantage. Why not leverage on that?

An economy based on sports and leisure could also bring much dynamism to our stagnant economy. At the end of the day, jobless economic growth is not optimal. If you had the option between creating Rs. 100 million of value-added in the offshore industry by employing 10 persons (with 90% of the value added being profits for shareholders and 10% being wages for the employees) and creating Rs. 100 million of value-added in the sports and leisure industry by employing 100 persons (with 10% of the value added being profits and 90% being wages for the employees), which one would you choose?

You can be sure that the capitalist profit-driven entrepreneur would choose the first option. But as a government, is it your role to think as a capitalist? Or should you aim to maximise the welfare of the people? At the end of the day, both options can co-exist and be complementary. It is all a matter of willingness.

* Published in print edition on 9 November 2018

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