Mauritius is often held up as the ideal model for African democracies. One of only three countries to hold continuous multiparty elections from independence to 1990 (the other two being Botswana and Gambia), Mauritius was the only country in which competition was vibrant and power actually changed hands. And it achieved this despite high levels of ethnic fragmentation. But a recent dispute between the president and the parliament has raised questions as to just how well multipartyism in Mauritius is actually functioning. Nic Cheeseman reports…
At the point of independence the prospects for Mauritius did not look good. The country was poor, lacked strong institutions, and was internally divided. Of the 1.1 million inhabitants, 68% were South Asian, 27% Creole of African ancestry, 3% Chinese, and 2% Franco-Mauritian. Religious divides further complicated the picture: of the South Asian majority, around half were Hindu while about one-sixth were Muslim. And relationship between these different groups were far from harmonious – the last ‘colonial’ election in 1967 saw riots between Creoles and Muslims, raising the prospect of communal violence in the post-colonial era.
But despite this tough set of starting conditions, three main factors supported a gradual process of democratization. First, successive leaders proved willing to build public goods and to govern in an inclusive manner that fostered a spirit of consensus building. Second, the country settled on a semi-presidential system in which real power lies with the Prime Minister. This, and the fragmentation of the party system, meant that Mauritian leaders were often more responsive to parliament than their counterparts in the rest of the continent. Third, institutions were designed to specifically promote inclusion, such as the provision of a ‘best loser’ rule in parliament which ensures that the legislature is roughly representative of the country’s different communities. Although politics remains dominated by a small number of Hindu families, these factors supported the emergence of a responsive and legitimate government. Today, Mauritius is one of the most democratic countries in Africa, and also one of the most stable.
But all is not well in paradise. In March a disagreement between President Anerood Jugnauth and the Prime Minister,Navinchandra Ramgoolam culminated in the President’s resignation. The root of the disagreement was that Ramgoolam accused the President of intervening directly in party politics, in contravention of his supposedly ceremonial role. Following an announcement by the leader of the opposition, Paul Berenger, of a new opposition coalition that would be headed by Jugnauth, the president of the ruling Labour Party told Reuters that ‘He [Jugnauth] is involved in political strategies to challenge the government, while he should be above politics and upholding the constitution.’ Ramgoolam subsequently challenged the president to deny the statement or quit, which prompted Jugnauth to resign on Sunday 1 April. And Jugnauth has no intention of waiting around in the shadows. Instead, he has headed straight for the political limelight, releasing a statement that read’ I have said that if the country needed me I wouldn’t hesitate to leave teh State House and to embark on a new fight… The future is bleak and the country is waiting for a renewal.’
The spat began when Ramgoolam’s Labour Party launched corruption investigations into the Militant Socialist Movement (MSM) over the acquisition of the Medpoint hospital. This was an explosive move for two reasons. First, the PMSD is headed by the president’s son, Pavind Jagnauth. Ramgoolam alleges that the president only ‘started to become agitated since the start of the investigation into the acquisition of the Medpoint hospital’. Second, at the time of the investigations the Labour Party was in a coalition government with the MSM. Pavind promptly resigned his position as Finance Minister in protest at the allegations that he had inflated a government tender to acquire the hospital. This left the Labour Party dependent on the tiny Mauritian Social Democratic Party (PMSD) for its parliamentary majority.
Shortly after leaving the government, Pavind Jagnauth took the MSM into an alliance with the main opposition party, the Mauritius Militant Movement (MMM). It was this MSM-MMM alliance that won power in 2000 – led by Anerood Jagnauth. Many commentators believe that the president has resigned his position so that he can once again lead the opposition into the next election. Although it remains too early to say what the consequences of this political alignment will be, commentators expect any contest between Ramgoolam and Jagnuath to be particularly heated. More serious is the politicization of corruption allegations, with leaders of all stripes acting more out of consideration for their own self-interest than the public good. The politicization of the presidency under Jagnauth is also a worrying trend, as it is supposed to be the institution that has a unifying effect on the political system. Mauritius remains one of the most democratic and economically successful states on the continent and this is unlikely to change in the short-term – but it is time for Jagnauth and Ramgoolan to restore the reputation of its political leaders and institutions.