A new government in Mauritius

Print edition : September 30, 2000

The Opposition alliance of the Mouvement of Socialiste Mauricien and the Mouvement Militant Mauricien registers a landslide victory in the elections in Mauritius.

THE change of government in Mauritius seems to have gone somewhat unnoticed in the rest of the world. The end of the Cold War and the end of ideology in Mauritian politics are factors responsible for the fading international interest in the Island countr y. In the 1970s, when Paul Berenger arrived with his Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) and a radical brand of politics, he was viewed with suspicion in the West. He was a Leftist, who demanded, among other things, the return of Diego Garcia to Mauritius . Dirty tricks were used to keep him out of power. Those were after all the Cold War days, and Mauritius occupied a strategic space in the Indian Ocean Rim area. Today Berenger is the most powerful politician on the island, after having emerged as the pi votal figure in the elections held in the second week of September.

Sir Anerood Jugnauth and Paul Berenger (right) in Port Louis on September 9.-ANDREW ENGLAND/ AP

The alliance of the MMM and the Mouvement Socialiste Mauricien (MSM), led by former Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth, registered a landslide victory over the Mauritius Labour Party (MLP)-led coalition of Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam. The victory was so decisive that the alliance secured 53 of the 62 seats in Parliament. Ramgoolam, however, managed to retain his seat. He had surprised his own party members by calling elections ahead of schedule by dissolving Parliament on August 11, without giving any r easons. He was elected in 1995 and his government's five-year term would have ended only in December. Ramgoolam's gamble did not work despite his coalition hiring the services of a French consultancy firm to help in the campaign.

There were no great ideological differences between the two competing fronts. Berenger had evolved from a radical socialist into a free marketeer. Mauritius, one of the richest countries in Africa, has an annual per capita income of about $3,600. Not sur prisingly, none of the political groupings argued for a radical change in economic policies. Most of the income is generated by sugar and textile exports and tourism.

The country also attracts a lot of off-shore capital, some of it of dubious origin. As far as economic issues were concerned, none of the parties wanted to rock the boat. The MMM-MSM coalition, however, highlighted the corruption and nepotism during the five years of MLP rule. Ramgoolam's government was rocked by financial scandals involving some of his close associates.

The Mauritian economic boom started in the 1980s, when the government was led by Jugnauth in coalition with Berenger. It was during that time that the country became a high-tech manufacturing centre and a base for financial services. Jugnauth was Prime M inister for 13 years, after heading his coalition to victory in three consecutive elections in 1983, 1987 and 1991. He lost office after he fell out with Berenger in the early 1990s. In the 1995 elections, Berenger was again the kingmaker, helping Ramgoo lam sweep the polls. The political honeymoon between the MLP and the MMM, however, did not last long. Berenger says that Ramgoolam reneged on his promise to liberalise the economy further and introduce wide-ranging constitutional reforms.

Jugnauth, 60, who has once again taken over as Prime Minister, said that the new government's priority would be the restoration of law and order and "combating fraud and corruption". Under the terms of the pre-poll agreement between the MMM and the MSM, Jugnauth will be Prime Minister for three years, after which he will take over as President, a largely ceremonial post. Berenger would then assume the post of Prime Minister. Until then Berenger will occupy the important post of Finance Minister.

If both the parties stick to the agreement, Mauritius, for the first time in its history, will have in three years' time a citizen of non-Indian origin as Prime Minister. Berenger is of Franco-Mauritian origin. Many in Mauritius believe that Berenger wou ld have been Prime Minister a long time ago but for his race and religion.

Race, religion, class and caste play an important role in Mauritian society and politics. People of Indian origin make up around 66 per cent of the population of around 1.2 million. Out of them, around 50 per cent are Hindus and 16 per cent Muslims. The Afro-Creole population, to which Berenger belongs, constitutes 30 per cent of the population. Mauritians of Chinese origin make up around 3 per cent of the population.

There were attempts to create a communal and ethnic divide in the run-up to the elections. The Opposition was not very happy at the attempts of Ramgoolam to highlight his close links with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Vajpayee has already m ade two official visits to Mauritius since becoming Prime Minister. His last visit, in March, became a matter of controversy in the election campaign. Some Opposition leaders alleged that Vajpayee's visit was timed to give Ramgoolam's campaign a headstar t. Vajpayee visited Ramgoolam's constituency and made a speech. Some senior Opposition politicians even alleged that India interferred in the domestic politics of Mauritius.

After the results were announced, India was no longer in the firing line. Berenger, instead, criticised the role of the French team in charge of Ramgoolam's propaganda machinery. "They (the French) lost in Senegal some time back, now they have lost in Ma uritius too," he was quoted as saying. The former President of Senegal, Abdou Diouf, was perceived to be a favourite of Paris but despite help from France the long-serving leader lost to an Opposition candidate in the election held earlier in the year.

No major policy changes are expected from the new government under Jugnauth. However, he may prefer to strengthen further Mauritius' ties with South African Development Community (SADC) members such as South Africa. Jugnauth is an old friend of New Delhi , and his return to power can have no adverse impact on the bilateral relations between Mauritius and India.

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