Protest March and its Significance

Whenever people disagree with the authorities in a democratic country, it is their duty to protest. In the words of the veteran Labour MP Tony Benn, ‘Protest is vital to a thriving democracy’

Last Friday, the sun was not hot enough to deter the protest march nor was the sky overcast. In fact it turned out to be a pleasant day. A good crowd of people had changed their red or blue shirts for black to mark it as a day of mourning for democracy. A committed group of protesters with placards in hands shouted slogans denouncing the processes which accompanied the transfer of power from father to son.

The protest march started at 3.30 pm and ended at 4 pm, providing a good excuse for civil servants not to nail their colours to the mast as yet. Marchers walked down the Sir William Newton, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, Pope Hennessy streets, and back to Government House. It was short and even too short for many. After the march, many stayed on for some time and were even willing to repeat the march.

Protests and protest marches have been an integral part of our country’s march to democracy. During the Dutch period, slaves had hardly been landed ashore that they ran away into the forests. During the French period and the British period, protest was endemic to colonial society. During the period of immigration, Indian labourers marched to Reduit to meet the Governor to denounce their conditions of work.

In the 1930s the protest march of small planters and labourers culminated in a major labour unrest. In the 1970s and 1980s, there had been protest marches on a number of issues against the MBC, on education, trade union recognition, PRB, and law and order. Schoolchildren and students marched against unjust regulations as well as on environmental issues. Journalists have protested against repressive laws.

Whether it was one person, or hundreds or thousands who protested, the number did not matter. Whenever people disagree with the authorities in a democratic country, it is their duty to protest. In the words of the veteran Labour MP Tony Benn who commented on students’ protest against the increase of student fees, ‘Protest is vital to a thriving democracy.’

Parliamentarians of the four parties represented in the National Assembly initiated the protest before Government House to denounce the transfer of power from the Prime Minister to his son. Although two parties withdrew their support some time before the march started, what is important is that the four parties were unanimous that something undemocratic or unconstitutional had occurred, despite the fact that they might disagree on the modalities or the implications for concerted action. In a country where there is a plurality of opinions, such unanimity among the opposition parties for the protest march itself is surprising and should be applauded.

There are many who consider that it is normal for a father to transfer the office of the Prime Minister to his son in the present circumstances. They argue that the move is consistent with the Westminster system, and to prove their point they provide the example of Theresa May who recently succeeded following the resignation of David Cameron.

Others more concerned with the economy will accept anything that will not endanger their purse and may even argue it is none of our business to express our views over such transfer of power. They could argue that the Government has a mandate to do so and ‘Government is Government’. There are of course other arguments, which are used to justify the change at the head of government by referring to one or two articles of our Constitution.

Those who take a different line adopt a holistic approach to our Constitution. They see it as an organic democratic framework and its articles must not be interpreted in isolation. A second point is that Mauritius is a variation of the Westminster system with its own specificities like many countries that have adopted that model. In contrast, Britain has no written constitution but has both written and unwritten conventions. Theresa May’s appointment followed well-established written conventions as outlined in Cabinet Manual Chapter 2, article 2.8.

In Mauritius that has a written Constitution and no written or unwritten conventions, it is the Constitution which is supreme, and any action which infringes the articles of the Constitution is illegal and undermines the legitimacy of the government. Admittedly such constitutional issues are complex for the general public and even for legal minds, and it is best left to the Supreme Court and the Privy Council to give their guidance. The quicker they do so the better for the government – and for the country.

One other consequence of the protest march has been to partly lift the veil on forthcoming alliances for the next general elections. It would have been normal for an unelected Prime Minister to govern with serenity for at least one year and elections to occur in 2018, as has been generally the case of all MSM-dominated governments except the one in 2003.

The non-participation of the MMM and the Mouvement Patriotique in the protest march gives the impression that the MMM would not like to be seen as leading a street protest against the government or in a court of law, lest it would find itself having to negotiate an alliance with the MSM at a later date. The crossing of a few MPs from one camp to another suggests that two major camps are already embarked in a process of party consolidation.

Finally the protest has ushered in an electoral mood and put the parties on the march for a snap election this year or for general elections next year, with little time left for the economy

Sada Reddi

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