Breakdown of the Polity

Mauritius which has been seen as a torch bearer of the “democratic way of life” is getting dangerously close to joining the category of “failed states”

Why taking the same and starting again is not an option

It has been postulated in a recent article that Mauritius which has been seen as a torch bearer of the “democratic way of life” in this part of Africa for more than half a century is getting dangerously close to joining that most ominous category of “failed states.” In order to substantiate such a prognostication, it is suggested here that the descent into such a frightful condition can generally be detected first in the breakdown of the polity.

The Oxford Concise Dictionary describes a polity as “form or process of government; condition of civil order”. While it is interesting to note that the polity is defined as a “form” of government and a “process”, may we add that it can also be conceived as “politics+civility.” Generally speaking, politics in a democratic setting can be defined as the space reserved for free debate of ideas and the art of convincing a majority of the people to unite around a cohesive and hopeful vision of the future, preferably in competition with an alternative option.

Ever since the MMM reneged on its “revolutionary” or even “leftist” reform programmes and in a global context of the emergence of the “unfettered market” ideology, the absence of “politics”, as defined above, from the public domain has been a stark feature of this country. The four principal political parties – MSM, PMSD, Labour Party and MMM – of which the first two are firmly controlled by a single family while the other two have been under the unchallenged control of a single leader for as far as a generation can remember, have indulged in an orgy of political fests through sometimes the most implausible coalitions and alliances. All for what looks like in defence of a sort of hereditary right to rule Mauritius.

As a result of these shenanigans, which have been going on for decades, the crying absence of politics from the public domain is striking. As for civility, the weekly horrendous shows of what is meant to be “parliamentary debates among Honourable members” which are regularly advertised on national television speak for more than a thousand words.

In a country in which the economy is dominated by five families and the political machinery (political parties) leading to almost unrestricted executive power (prime ministership) is monopolized by three or four others, the transition from subject to citizen is proving to be particularly painful. Small island developing states like Mauritius are generally besieged externally by problems of vulnerability to global events and internally by other specific issues related to size and proximity which complicate the proper running of institutions. This is particularly true when it comes to matters related to separation of powers and independence of different organs of government.

In Mauritius the diversity of origin of the population has added another layer of complexity. In this regard, the following extract from an essay by David Held — ‘Broken politics: from 9/11 to the present’ — is so acutely relevant and central to our present context that we take the liberty of quoting him rather extensively:

“The shift in people’s identities from subjects to citizens, with equal rights and obligations in a political community and where victory or defeats at the polls are prospects that have to be accepted rests on intricate cultural processes. Separating individual identity as a member of a group, tribe, ethnic unit, or religious order from the culture and demands of citizenship involves an arduous and historically difficult set of transformations. The values and requirements of citizenship in a democracy come to trump those of other forms of social and cultural identification, such that being a member of a tribe or ethnic group is secondary to the rule of law and constitutional demands.”

As our readers would certainly have grasped, we only need to substitute the word “castes” for tribe in the above and we have the perfect description of what lies at the heart of our political conundrum – a vicious condition which like the anthills eating the trees of a forest devours the pillars of democratic and representative government in this country. What is even worse is that none of the traditional parties which have grown and been moulded in the prevailing political regimes show any inclination to challenge the status-quo and engage the polity onto the road of “separation of individual identity as a member of a group, tribe, ethnic unit or religious order or (castes) from the culture and demands of citizenship…”

Apart from the unlikely prospects of challenging the dominating pattern of ethnic/religious/caste foundations of the political process in the country, the other catastrophe waiting to happen is clearly on the economic front. There again the incapacity of government to implement capital projects in spite of having identified a series of high profile infrastructure projects (the capital budget for 2015/16 and 2016-17 were underutilized by 50 and 30% respectively) is bound to impact negatively on economic fundamentals although it helps as a window-dressing exercise in keeping a lower budget deficit.

Independently of the view that one may take on the level of debts that a country can sustain, the fact that government is unable to respect a commitment taken with international institutions regarding its objective in this regard will certainly cause concern among credit agencies closely watching such parameters. The point here is not to discuss the shortcomings of government economic policy as such, but rather to illustrate how the breakdown in governance impacts on its capacity to deliver on economic pledges and implementation of projects.

Translated into breakdown of the polity or “form” of government argument, this problem is closely linked with a failure to transform one of the most critical factors of success since Independence, to cope with the new emerging global and internal economic dynamics of the late 20th century. The Public-Private Sector Partnership, which was a mode of governance adopted at the time of accession to independence by the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam regime, was well adapted to the protection/preferential market access era of the 1970s when the benefits of the Sugar Protocol provided an economic safety net.

In spite of its weaknesses, it served Mauritius well before the new era of globalization, driven by deregulation and liberalization, hit our shores. In the absence of concerted deliberations between a weakened Civil Service affected by the breakdown of institutions and processes and a disoriented private sector which pained to rid itself of the habits of an economic framework defined by rents and defence of extant vested interests, there has been a perversion of the “partnership” which manifests itself in the spread of corruption and the subordination of the state apparatus through the present system of political party financing by private operators.

As any reader who agrees with the above would surely conclude, only radical changes in governance processes and structures can provide the necessary conditions for a break from the present vicious circle of destruction. The question remains: where are the political forces which are ready to so fundamentally change the way of doing politics as well as reconstruct the foundations of socio-economic growth?

Rajiv Servansingh

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