“The next general elections are critical for the future of this country”

Interview: Kugan Parapen, Economist

‘Opposition parties have a unique opportunity in 2024 to bring forward the biggest societal revolution since independence. Will they seize it?’

* ‘Citizens of this country settle their scores with politicians in the secrecy of the voting booth…
… is anything brewing underneath the seemingly calm ocean’

* ‘The last minute Medpoint alliance between the MMM and the MSM in 2000 was a game changer. Who is in possession of a trump card in 2024?’

In this interview with Kugan Parapen, economic spokesperson for Rezistans ek Alternativ, Mauritius Times delves into the intricacies surrounding the potential timing of the next general elections. Against the backdrop of speculation and political manoeuvring, Kugan Parapen provides insightful perspectives on the democratic implications, the strategies of the ruling party, and the challenges facing the opposition. He also addresses questions on the opposition’s performance, potential game-changing factors in the upcoming elections, and the socio-economic consequences of political decisions. As the political stage unfolds in Mauritius, the interview also explores external influences, global economic trends, and the critical choices facing the electorate.

Mauritius Times: There have been a lot of speculations on social media, as well as prognostications by local “politologues,” about the timing of the next general elections, especially in the wake of Pravind Jugnauth’s casual but deliberate remark that the elections could also take place beyond 2024. Beyond the longing for some fresh air in the governance of the country, does it matter when the elections are held?

Kugan Parapen: From a strictly democratic perspective, it is somewhat a joke that the date of the most important event in the country’s democratic calendar remains unknown until a few weeks before it actually happens.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the onus of such a decision fall into the hands of the Prime Minister solely. While the most fervent supporters of the MSM will say that this has always been the case and that this is the prerogative of all Prime Ministers of the Republic, an unbiased assessment of such a prerogative can only see its unfair nature.

If we recall what happened the last time general elections were held in our country, we will remember the nastiness surrounding the dissolution of parliament. Then, the incumbent MSM government kept saying that they would see out their mandate but, in the meantime, they were secretly getting ready for elections. So much so that when parliament was dissolved, Jugnauth was more than ready to hit the campaign ground running while the opposition was yet to get in their stride.

Should we expect a repeat of 2019 in 2024? Probably. As such, it does not really matter when elections are held, unless you are a staunch astrology believer as we hear some are. What matters more is the degree of an unfair advantage the government can garner by catching the opposition by surprise. With that in mind, I would say that it is up to the opposition forces to be ready and not get caught by the pettiness of the MSM once again.

* It’s the government of the day that can fill the pockets of electors in exchange for their support, and what we have been seeing lately is that it has started to put the political conditions in place for the holding of elections anytime within the next three to six months. The Opposition cannot beat the MSM-led government at that game. Does this mean that the election outcome could be highly predictable?

History has taught us that the run-up to an election is generally less important than the full journey leading to a general election. It is then quite possible that the outcome of the next election has already been sealed. How much can the government do in the coming months to alter the perception of the people on its tenure?

On numerous occasions in the past we have seen governments attempt last-ditch manoeuvres to improve their appeal vis-à-vis the electorate but to no avail. That said, a trump card can be a game changer. For example, the last minute Medpoint alliance between the MMM and the MSM in 2000 was such a trump card. Who is in possession of a trump card in 2024? Will they know how and when to use it if they do indeed possess one?

* In the meantime, would you say that the opposition has lived up to the people’s expectations and to yours personally?

I suspect you are referring to the parliamentary opposition here.

By and large, the mainstream parliamentary parties are aging, especially those politicians who are close to the leadership of these parties. Now, I know that age is just a number, but one cannot but acknowledge the disconnect between these traditional opposition parties and the younger generations. Jugnauth’s team has recognised that and that is why he has made a special effort to woo this electorate over recent months.

Coming back to our appreciation of the opposition, we need to recognise that Mauritius is tending towards multipartism. Thus, an appraisal of the opposition cannot be limited to parliamentary parties only, but we also need to include extra parliamentary parties as well. It is high time to realise that if our electoral system featured a decent proportional representation (PR) layer, multiple parties would be elected to parliament as is currently the case in sound democracies across the world.

We need to appraise the work of the opposition in a context whereby the government has had increasingly recourse to what many would qualify as fascist methods. MSM and its allies were on the ropes when the public manifested its discontent following the Wakashio disaster. Never in the history of this country had so many people taken to the streets to express their anger and exasperation with a government.

The second lockdown, which occurred in early 2021, was a timely ‘distraction’ for the government and allowed those in power to divert that deep-rooted anger. Then through strategic targeted actions, they managed to instil a degree of fear in many and have been surfing on this seemingly calm ocean ever since. But is anything brewing underneath? We are often told that citizens of this country settle their scores with politicians in the secrecy of the voting booth…Their verdict is imminent!

* Whatever the views of opinion makers and the Opposition inside or outside Parliament regarding the current government, ultimately it will be the choice of the electors whether to vote the current government back into office or opt for the Opposition. That would effectively reflect the democratic nature of the electoral process and the role of the electors in determining the government, don’t you think?

Vox Populi, Vox Dei. If we are to remain a credible democracy, it is absolutely essential that we respect the outcome of the next general elections, irrespective of who wins or loses.

Over the years and elections, there has been an admirable and laudable serenity when it comes to political transitions in this country. Alas, there has been a departure from this peaceful and respectful transfer of power in 2019. Unfortunately, the sheer number of people who were nowhere to be found on the ballots does raise a few serious question marks.

We must do our utmost to ensure that such disturbing occurrences do not repeat themselves this year or at any other time in the future. Democracy is precious!

* What if the Pravind Jugnauth-led alliance were to win his gamble, which could also be seen as an endorsement by the electorate of his policies and strategies? What do you think would happen to the traditional parties and the leadership of the Labour Party, the MMM, and the PMSD in the short- and medium-terms?

Our country has long lost dignity when it comes to politics. Political parties have turned their back on democratic traditions and are nowadays a shadow of their former selves.

One would like to think that a triumph of Jugnauth at the next general elections would herald a deep-rooted renewal of staff within all opposition parties. But we do not expect this to materialise. Stepping down is not in the DNA of our politicians. Who was the last major leader of a political party to make way following an electoral defeat? Can Mauritius envisage a 34-year-old Prime Minister as is currently the case in France?

The short- and medium-term implications of such tenacity from political leaders can only be far-reaching. To a certain degree, by clinging to power at any cost, political leaders are weakening their own parties since more and more people are likely to turn their back on their respective parties. We talked earlier about the disconnect between younger generations and these rigid political parties. This does create a political vacuum. At some point, this vacuum is bound to be occupied by another political proposition. To stay relevant, political parties face an existential question: to prune or not to prune?

* What about the country? What would Mauritius gain from another MSM mandate?

Continuity… Another MSM mandate is bound to be a carbon copy of the current mandate. The MSM did win a third mandate under Anerood Jugnauth in 1991 except that its bid for re-election involved allying itself with the then MMM opposition. In the current context, we struggle to see which major opposition force the MSM could seduce. Even more so given the epic backlash suffered by the Labour Party-MMM alliance in 2014.

So, assuming the same government is reappointed, what will Mauritius stand to gain? That’s a tough one to answer, I’m afraid.

* In any case, 2024 will surely not be the year of major economic reforms or discipline. Given the unrestrained largesse displayed by the current government despite the public debt situation, might we be in for some bad news in the years ahead? And do you see that hitting us sooner rather than later?

First thing first, the Republic of Mauritius possesses valuable economic and geopolitical assets. As irresponsible as one can be, one does not go bankrupt overnight if one possesses wealth. And ironically, this is probably our main weakness.

If one is to learn from one’s mistake, one would rather hit rock bottom as soon as possible so that one can subsequently recover. This is unlikely to be the country’s destiny under current circumstances.

Nevertheless, the day of reckoning will be upon us at some point in the future, and it might well be too little, too late by then.

* Do you believe that the economic challenges anticipated in the coming years would be a result of systemic issues, or would they primarily be influenced by the current government’s policies?

Current government policies have not been geared towards addressing the country’s longstanding systemic issues. If anything, they have and will contribute to exacerbating the structural problems of our economy. Our policy makers are experts at kicking the can down the road – that is refusing to tackle the pressing economic issues of the day.

We should also differentiate between the economy and its economic agents. The current path upon which the country has embarked inevitably leads to gentrification. That is the development of a new economic paradigm which will be beneficial to the owners of capital but irreversibly detrimental to the population at large. The evidence is here for all to see. The rampant rise in the cost of living coupled with the housing crisis experienced by the working population are all but symptoms of the new economic model being slowly but surely ushered in.

Smart Mauritius has never been designed to maximise the welfare of the population but rather to engineer an expat-led economic model similar to countries like Cayman Islands, Singapore and other well-known tax havens.

* Otherwise, what key external factors, such as global economic trends or geopolitical events, do you anticipate influencing Mauritius in 2024?

2024 is the biggest election year in history. 76 countries are scheduled to hold national voting this year with some 4.2 billion people (or more than half of humanity) being called to cast their ballot. The stakes could not be higher with important elections being held in the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and India to name a few.

2024 can be considered as a referendum on the handling of Covid-19 around the world.

We have noticed an inclination by the MSM to synchronise major events as much as possible with Modi’s India. Given that the general elections in India are expected to be held around April/May, we should not expect elections in Mauritius to be held before. Modi’s coalition is a hot favourite to win re-election and Jugnauth’s strategy might be to surf on his victory and hope that this will enhance his popularity among his core electorate.

Geopolitical tensions in the Middle East and in Ukraine also have the potential to impact the local scene. The recent disruptions in the Red Sea by Iranian-backed forces should not be underestimated. The possibility of a wider scale war across the Middle East is still very distinct.

Finally, the strength of the global economy will also matter eventually. Investors are rejoicing at the thought that central banks across the world seem to have tamed inflationary pressures. 2024 will provide a definitive answer to that topic. This year will also tell us about the economic cost of the meteoric rise in interest rates – will the global economy emerge unscathed, or will it tilt towards a recession?

* Are there any emerging opportunities or risks that you believe Mauritius should be particularly mindful of in the coming years?

The ultimate risk has got to be climate change. Mauritius has been identified as one of the countries that would be most vulnerable to climate change and recent experience suggests that this is indeed the case.

As climatic patterns evolve, the impact on our socioeconomic model can be manifold. On the one hand, it will increasingly negatively impact the well-being of the population as it comes to terms with flash floods, super cyclones and warmer temperatures. On the other hand, the survival of the tourism industry is likely to be on the line as both sea levels and ecological consciousness increase.

In terms of opportunities, obviously the progressive shift of power from the west to the east does present Mauritius with several windows of opportunities. However, this will likely prove to be a tricky, delicate route to navigate.

* Finally, what do you think should be the priority of the next government: economic reforms or the strengthening of democratic institutions in Mauritius?

In the ideal world, we would prefer both to go hand in hand.

But if we really need to choose one at this moment in time, we would go for democratic reforms. For one, we do not expect reforms to happen without a solid foundation. We see the type of governance we choose as being the operating system of our society. It is thus paramount that we equip our society with an adequate operating system if we want to optimise public decision making.

Over the last five years, we have, on numerous occasions, witnessed scathing attacks on our democratic pillars by Pravind Jugnauth and his gang. His repetitive attacks on the judiciary, his handling of the police force and his meddling with independent bodies all suggest that this man is a danger to our democracy.

Rezistans ek Alternativ would never have suggested a regroupment of opposition forces if we did not consider the next general elections as being critical for the future of this country. Opposition parties have a unique opportunity to bring forward the biggest societal revolution since independence in 2024. Will they seize it?

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 12 January 2024

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