Making Sense of the Coming By-Election

The coming by-election would serve as a protest platform for the electorate which would translate into a singularly important number of abstentions and protest votes

The Writ for the by-election in constituency number 18 – Belle Rose/Quatre Bornes has now been issued and the election fixed for the 17th of December next. This exercise which was judiciously announced by the Prime Minister hours before leaving for the United Nations General Assembly has been welcomed by all party leaders as well as the population at large. It seems to put an end to the climate of doubt created by persistent rumours that the government was seriously considering an option of calling general elections instead.

The sceptics will still argue that this option has not been completely ruled out with this announcement. In fact the Prime Minister can at any time between now and the 17th of December, acting within the provisions of the electoral dispositions, cancel the Writ and announce the date for general elections.

In terms of the purely political standpoint, one can understand that it is all in the interest of the government to have a rather long three-month campaign. That, in the view of the government, will give the opposition parties contesting for the seat ample time to rip each other off in what promises to be a particularly raucous and no-holds barred campaign, given the candidates who have been designated or self-proclaimed up to now and the stakes of these elections. Whether such a long campaign is in the general interest of the country especially as regards the economy, it may not sound as a terribly “reasonable” decision.

To come to the election itself, it must be said that Constituency Number 18 has over the decades since independence won itself a peculiar reputation. It is generally true that the party-alliances which win these three seats in a general election usually go on to win a majority and form the government. The parties which have filed candidates would presume that winning this strategic constituency would bode well for their chances at the next general elections.

A glance at the history of by-elections does not however necessarily support such reasoning. In April 1998, during the first term of Navin Ramgoolam as Prime Minister, a by-election was held in the constituency of Flacq-Bon Accueil following the demise of then Minister Gian Nath. The Labour party candidate Satish Faugoo won that by-election with 42% of the votes beating no less a candidate than Sir Anerood Jugnauth, and the MMM candidate Madun Dulloo coming as a distant third.

During the same term, a by-election in Beau Bassin-Petite Riviere, held in September 1999 following the resignation of Jocelyne Minerve as Member of Parliament of the MMM, saw the triumph of the Labour Party- PMSD alliance-supported candidate Xavier Luc Duval. In both case therefore the candidate of the incumbent government won the day.

In the ensuing general elections of 2000, a little more than one year later, the Labour-PMSD alliance was thrashed by an MSM-MMM alliance. Things were indeed different in 2003 when Sir Anerood Jugnauth resigned from Parliament to become the President of the Republic and Paul Berenger took over as Prime Minister. In the resulting by-election in Constituency number 7, the Labour Party which was then in the opposition filed Rajesh Jeetah as their candidate and went on to win the election by a handsome majority.

During the general elections of 2005, the Labour-PMSD combine beat the MSM-MMM. In one of those turnarounds, unfortunately so characteristic of local politics, the Labour Party did not file a candidate in the by-election held in 2008 in the Constituency of Moka-Quartier Militaire following the resignation of Ashok Jugnauth. Instead the Labour Party, which was the majority party in the incumbent government, then supported Pravind Jugnauth, who stood for the MSM – a prelude to the burgeoning and fateful Labour-MSM alliance which would contest the next general elections.

As we have suggested earlier, there are no conclusive lessons to be drawn as regards the impact of the result of by-elections on the next general elections… except perhaps that the Labour party is particularly adept at winning them.

Months ago, this column had argued that the parties in government (ML and MSM) would most probably not file a candidate for this election. We had then essentially suggested that the extent of damage caused by an eventual defeat of their candidate would so far outweigh any gains which would result from a win that it would make no sense for them to put up a candidate. If reason prevails the government would probably stick to this line of thinking. There is also a lot of political sense in the decision to abstain and let the opposition parties fight it out among themselves and in the process cause serious damage to each other and, as the government would hope, may be irremediably in certain cases.

The results coming out of the by-election in December would be seen to have an added meaning due to the fact that the electorate in Constituency number 18 is made up of a fairly representative sample of the national electorate. Political analysts however concur on the fact that the electoral behaviour of voters at a by-election does not necessarily reflect their behaviour at a general election. The stakes are perceived to be different to the extent that the results of the election do not impact on who runs or will run the country. Under these circumstances other considerations such as the credibility of the candidates or the temptation to “teach a lesson” to whomsoever can determine the elector’s choice.

We are tempted to conclude that the coming by-election would in fact serve as a protest platform for the electorate which would translate into a singularly important number of abstentions and protest votes for “smaller” non-traditional parties. Such abstention though would probably manifest itself primarily among the undecided, non-partisan voters and only fractionally among the more committed party supporters.

The figures to watch are therefore the level of abstention and the protest votes which will give an indication of the extent to which the electorate in Mauritius is willing to reject the status quo, repudiate politics as usual and display profound distrust of the erstwhile political elites.

  • Published in print edition on 22 September 2017

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