2016: A Year For Tackling The Leadership Limbo

left by the 2014 elections

By any standards the general elections of December 2014 should be a game-changer in the political landscape of Mauritius. They have been followed by a most tumultuous year as the new government has tried to find its mark and struggled to contain a huge crisis of expectations in the electorate.

One would remember the special circumstances in which the elections were fought. At the outset, the general consensus was that the Alliance Lepep stood no chance of winning against the all-mighty Labour Party-MMM coalition. In fact the electoral pundits predicted a landslide victory for the latter based on what looked like an infallible mathematical formula which predicted a 60-0 win. The fact that the Labour Party controlled the whole state machinery was thought to be an additional benefit which would contribute to smash the opposition.

Brave face

Confronted with such bleak prognostications, the Alliance Lepep put up a brave face and went on a campaign based on a spree of promises and declarations, which even they should have known to be well-nigh unrealisable by any future government. That did not seem to matter too much as long as the likelihood of forming the next government appeared negligible. Not in their wildest dreams could the leaders of the Alliance Lepep imagine that their opponents would actually offer them victory on a platter.

For almost one year the MMM and Labour Party leaders were engaged in a process dubbed as “koz-koze”. The ups and downs followed by the almost farcical “off and on” that marked the negotiations between Navin Ramgoolam and Paul Berenger had already caused considerable damage to the proposed coalition that was being concocted.

As if to add insult to injury, this was then followed by one of the most disastrous political campaigns ever. The main thrust of the new vision which was being offered to the electorate simply revolved around botched up propositions for electoral reforms and a power sharing agreement between the two leaders involving fundamental changes to the Constitution and the ushering in of what was haughtily described as a Second Republic. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Alliance Lepep came to power with an absolute majority of more than three quarters of seats in Parliament. One year on, it is clear that the most blatant weaknesses of the government can be traced back to this rather convoluted turn of events and their unexpected good fortune. The general consensus among observers is that this first year has been more or less disappointing — this being, in part, a direct consequence of the high expectations in the population, especially in relation to the promises regarding the creation of jobs which reflect the aspiration of job seekers.

Unresolved issues

Following the very eventful first year of the new government, many important issues remain to be resolved if Mauritius is to place itself firmly on the trajectory of an economically prosperous and socially progressive and modern society. Arguably one of the most critical among these relates to the question of future configuration of our political leadership. To put it bluntly, the question which arises is whether the time has not come for a new generation of leaders at the head of our political parties?

After what we have experienced during the past election, can the same leaders be trusted to lead the transformational changes which are so badly needed if the country is ever to achieve the kind of structural economic and social changes without which any improvement in long term standards of living of the population will remain mere pipe dreams?

In this respect the elections of December 2014 have been pregnant with many lessons.

The most significant among these has been the determining role paid by social media in shaping the voting behaviour of the electorate as illustrated by the phenomenal success of the “Vire Mam” campaign. An equally significant factor, even if it has been less discussed, has been the role of the new and young voters who join the electoral lists on the occasion of every new election. This phenomenon is bound to amplify in line with the demographic structure of the country. These young voters are more likely to pass judgement on political leaders based on their present actions and values rather than on some historical legacy.

Given a choice they are also less likely to be influenced by strictly “communalo-casteist” criteria. As a result they will tend to be more volatile in their electoral behaviour. Can the same leaders who have been at the helm of the largest parties for more than a generation now, appeal effectively to those new voters? In the absence of systematic studies of recent trends in voting behaviour in Mauritius, it will be difficult to come up with a definite answer to the above questions. Fragmentary observations and anecdotal evidence do seem to suggest, however, that there is a demand for a new generation of leaders who can seamlessly blend with the aspirations of the emerging Mauritius.

Re-inventing leadership

All the above does beg the question: What about our erstwhile leaders, are they not capable of re-inventing themselves to take up the daunting challenges with which the country will have to grapple over the coming years? Of the four party leaders who can claim to have some influence on the course of events, SAJ has already clearly indicated that nothing would suit him better that to get relieved of his present responsibilities. He gives the impression of a man who is happy to have accomplished his duty and is now seeking to enjoy a well-deserved retirement. Events, though, have taken such a turn that he is having to bide his time.

The supporters of Xavier Luc Duval, scion of Sir Gaetan Duval, have gone through a rather intricate experience ever since he joined politics. His supporters would have taken great comfort from the results of a recent public opinion poll which put him at the head of the most popular politician category. If anything, his political career demonstrates a high level of acumen which has ensured that he has been part of three consecutive governments, including the last one, unscathed by reputational damage. Such a performance clearly leaves him as the unchallenged leader of his party and a potential partner for any forthcoming new political configuration.

Navin Ramgoolam and Paul Berenger bear the scar of the last general elections. The electorate, which had been so faithful over a number of years, revolted as much against what was being proposed as against the way in which it was being done. As we have noted earlier for the rest of the year 2014 as from the fateful breakdown of the MSM-MMM Remake the whole rigmarole of negotiations between the two party leaders smacked of arrogance and self-conceit. For all intents and purposes Parliament was suspended for almost one year while the leaders discussed what was perceived by the general public as their personal future. The dodgy campaign which then followed resulted in a bloody electoral sanction for both leaders. Can they recover from that bodily blow, electorally speaking?

If the immediate post-elections events are anything to go by – Paul Berenger putting the blame squarely on Navin Ramgoolam while rejecting any iota of responsibility for the electoral rout of the MMM, and the former Prime Minister being the object of a series of legal cases being filed against him — the future does look rather dim for both leaders.

The unknowns

That being said, however, many observers seem to think that time is a great healer, especially in politics, where it is said that one week is a long time. The question which arises is not so much what are the probabilities of a comeback of one or the other and under what specific circumstances. The real issue is whether, on what they have demonstrated so far, these two leaders would be trusted again to lead the country to effectively realize our ambitions of creating a high-income, more equitable and modern regional economic power house.

We are finally left with young Mr Jugnauth, the leader of the party which dominates the present government alliance. His fate hangs on the outcome of the appeal against his conviction on the case of “conflict of interest”. His latest statement seems to indicate that in case of a negative conclusion he will be taking a drastic decision. One guesses that this would imply a decision that will see him take some distance from active politics.

On the other hand a positive outcome may find him being ushered in as the next Prime Minister after a more or less short time. That would at least have the merit of elucidating one of the unknowns which is heavily weighing on the political process (in addition to the one relating to the fate of the legal affairs in which Navin Ramgoolam is presently entangled).

Rajiv Servansingh

 

* Published in print edition on 25 December 2015

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