Shaking the political kaleidoscope in Mauritius

by Sean Carey

The London-based Africa Report recently provided a brief but excellent analysis of Mauritius’s three main political dynasties –- those of Ramgoolam, Jugnauth and Duval, whose family members are associated with the Parti Travailliste, Mouvement Socialiste Mauricien (MSM), and the Parti Mauricien Social-Démocrate (PMSD) respectively.

Paul Berenger
Paul Berenger. Source/Wikipedia
But the big news revealed at a press conference last Wednesday, is that Paul Bérenger, the veteran leader of the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM), the largest opposition party, is suffering from early stage cancer in his left tonsil. He was widely praised by other politicians, the press and members of the public for his openness and candour. On Monday, he flew to Paris for what is expected to be three months of medical treatment.

Bérenger, a Franco-Mauritian from a middle-class family, graduated from the University in Wales, Bangor in the mid-1960s. He then spent a period in Paris soaking up the student and union-inspired radicalism of the time. On his return to Mauritius, Bérenger became a trade union organizer before forming the MMM in 1969. In alliance with the now-defunct Parti Socialiste Mauricien (PSM) led by Harish Boodhoo, the coalition won all 60 seats in the general election 1982. Subsequently Bérenger served as finance minister.

The absence of an effective opposition guaranteed that the government was short lived, however. Internal divisions soon surfaced and resulted in the dissolution of the National Assembly following year, before new elections were held. The former Prime Minister, Anerood Jugnauth, previously a close ally of Bérenger, left the MMM and formed the MSM, and in alliance with the Parti Travailliste, PSM and PMSD headed a new government. Bérenger returned to the opposition benches. But he did go on to serve as prime minister between 2003 and 2005 as part of a MMM-MSM coalition, and remains the only non-Hindu to have held the office since the country achieved independence from the UK in 1968.

Bérenger long ago discarded much of his early hard left-leaning politics, tracking to the relative safety of the political center ground. Nevertheless, while being careful not to upset the so far successful and widely praised emerging economy model in his home country (Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz calls it “the Mauritius Miracle“) the MMM remains associated with a certain degree of radicalism (Bérenger still sports a Che Guevara-style moustache) and a non-communal ideology, even if in practice that appeal to universalism is a difficult trick to pull off because of the cultural, social and political complexities in polyethnic Mauritius.

But there can be no doubt that the MMM is extremely well-organized. Bérenger is also a charismatic leader, who has been key to maintaining the party’s political status and credibility among the electorate. The MMM continues to draw most of its support from urban voters, and many seasoned political observers thought, at least until last week, that it would remain the largest single party Mauritius for the foreseeable future – it has always polled over 40 per cent in general elections.

The MMM’s deputy Alan Ganoo will take charge of the party in the absence of the 67-year-old Bérenger. Inevitably, that has led to speculation about the succession, including among party loyalists. “In my opinion, Paul Bérenger’s medical treatment will allow him to reflect seriously about the future leadership of the party,” commented Jooneed Jeeroburkhan, a founding member of the MMM.

It also raises questions about future political alliances. Currently, the MMM is in partnership in opposition with the MSM of former Prime Minister and President Sir Anerood and his son Pravind Jugnauth. But there have been persistent rumours of a tie-up between the MMM and the Parti Travailliste led by Prime Minister Dr. Navin Ramgoolam. Difficult to predict the outcome? That’s for sure. But it’s the nature of coalition politics, where no party leader expects to have enough seats to form a government, and so enters into electoral pacts before the population casts its votes.

Nevertheless, whether or not Paul Bérenger returns to active politics, a general election in Mauritius is not scheduled until 2015. One thing is certain amongst all the uncertainty: there will be plenty of time for more shaking of the political kaleidoscope in what is undoubtedly one of the world’s liveliest democracies.

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