In the first interview of the new year, Weekly speaks to former member of the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) and former president, Cassam Uteem, about the state of the MMM and its possible options for the next general election. He also shares with us his opinion on the government’s performance so far, the possible alliances and the next election outcome.
Since the last by-election, there has been a lot of talk about the fate of the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM). How do you see the future of the party?
After the last by-election, which saw the humiliating defeat of an MMM trounced as never before, its leader is reported to have said that in politics there are ups and downs. I would grant him that but at the same time he should be the first to realise that the series of downs suffered by his party, one election after the other, alone or in alliance with other political parties, and for so many years now, calls for a serious introspection regarding the type of leadership he has encouraged over the years and his own position within the party. He should think again about the absolute control he exercises over the party structure and the political and electoral strategies he is known to have initiated and, each time, ‘unanimously’ endorsed by members of his political bureau and central committee made to perceive as his spineless devotees. Unless there is a profound shake-up, there won’t be any ‘ups’ on the horizon and I am afraid that great party with a once recognised charismatic leader might well end up like the Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate (PMSD) of Sir Gaetan Duval’s notoriety, finally reduced to a parson’s nose. I hope we are not witnessing the end of yet another political cycle. The MMM deserves better!
Are you joining those who are saying it’s time there was a leadership change?
I don’t believe a mere leadership change would be sufficient to turn the tide. There is an absolute need to find ways of making the MMM relevant again. A political party cannot expect to live and flourish retrospectively only or rhetorically only. The MMM has to show and to prove, once again, that the ideology and values it stands for today, as it did yesterday, meet with the new aspirations and expectations of the people, in its majority, that a paradigm shift is possible. Paul Bérenger should also realise that, unfortunately for him, he suffers today from a credibility gap which won’t be easy to bridge. He can continue to be an asset to his party if he is prepared to play the role of ‘the old sage’, do away with some of the dead wood around him and stop overshadowing the old and new talents around him.
You have steered clear from talking about the alliances Bérenger gets into. Do you condone his alleged move to join a battered Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MSM)?
If the MMM manages to shift its priority from power grabbing at all cost to that of grappling with the economic, social and environmental problems the country is faced with and come up with a real alternative model of development that would be more inclusive and pro-poor, unlike the current one that is making the rich richer and the poor poorer, there wouldn’t be any need for an at-all-cost coalition. The MMM should show how different and more efficient it could be tomorrow in power in tackling the law and order situation,
the drug traffic scourge and all the societal ills that have worsened in recent years. If it does that, it would show that it could once again be the torch bearer of the values that the Left has always stood for, in spite of the blurred ideologies resulting out of globalisation today. But let’s be less nostalgic and more realistic: politics is, after all, about power! Unless there is a change in the Labour political leadership, with Arvind Boolell emerging as the de-facto leader, when a working relationship with the MMM would be possible and perhaps more welcoming to many, the MMM and the MSM, in view of their history, are considered to be the most natural political allies, and if they don’t want, at least in the short term, to go into political wilderness, their common interest lies in an acceptable coalition formula.
How would the militants react if once more the MMM softened its position against the government in anticipation of a future alliance?
The Belle-Rose/Quatre Bornes by-election has weakened and KO’d the MMM more than the 2014 general election and the militants are aware that, from a major political force, their party has been reduced to a minor one, not to say to an appendix, and, as a consequence, their political bargaining power has been drastically reduced. Except for the die-hards, I don’t foresee any strong negative reactions against a strategy of power-sharing with the MSM coming from the militants, should the MMM leadership decide on entering into an alliance with the MSM.
Don’t you find anything immoral about the opposition engaging in the coze/cozé with the government instead of concentrating on its role of denouncing the excesses of the parties in government?
I am not at all suggesting that the opposition, including the MMM, should give up its role of watchdog or stop fulfilling the duties and responsibilities devolving on opposition parties in any democracy, in and out of parliament, nor have I advocated any alliance. The question of coze/cozé doesn’t therefore arise. Actually, I have been referring to three possible future scenarios: first, a go-alone one with a reinvented or restructured MMM maintaining its original core values and adapting itself to the changed environment to answer the expectations and needs of the population. Second, with power-sharing in view, a possible alliance with a renewed Labour under Arvind Boolell’s leadership, since working with or under Navin Ramgoolam has been ruled out by the current MMM leadership. Third, and with the same objective in view, an alliance with the MSM, which I have defined as being more ‘natural’, since one is the offshoot of the other.
So you do believe that an MMM/MSM alliance is ‘natural’, don’t you?
As long as we have to labour under the distorted electoral system of First-Past-the-Post, pre-election coalitions of political parties will remain a constant factor. No political party today – and that’s my considered view – can alone aspire to win an absolute majority at the next general election. Let me make myself clearer, I am not advocating any of the three scenarios above. In the best national interest, political pluralism and a majority-run government, with a strong opposition are the ingredients I have always favoured for our democracy.
The prime minister, Pravind Jugnauth, closed last year with the words, ‘we had an excellent year’ and his father, the minister mentor, enriched that by stating that his son had done even better than himself? What is your view?
You didn’t expect a different assessment from the prime minister and the minister mentor, did you? Anyway, such hyperbolic statements sound ever so ludicrous. In the last few years, the country has been plagued with innumerable scandals involving ministers and MPs close to the government, ministers have had or have been made to resign, the corruption perception is on the rise, drug trafficking and drug-related activities and incidents have reached a proportion never before attained, some if not most of the basic institutions have failed the country, the law and order situation is chaotic, with a commissioner of police giving the impression of being at the beck and call of the political masters of the day, our society is becoming more materialistic day by day while the economy is creating jobs only for the boys! In such a deleterious environment, even the positive measures taken by the PM towards the end of last year have failed to create any positive impact on the population, and yet the negative income tax and the institution of a minimum wage are indeed historical measures. The PM and his ministers have not been able to market them. I think, the prime minister is doing his best but as the saying goes, he should better his best while the minister mentor’s short temperedness is becoming more and more disgraceful, to say the least.
You talk about corruption, scandals, nepotism, the weakening of institutions, a record in drug activities, chaos… but at the same time, you are saying that the PM is doing his best and you seem to be encouraging the MMM to go into alliance with the MSM. Any contradiction there?
The PM has grown up in the shadow of a banyan tree and it will take the sapling time to reach full bloom! The current situation is symptomatic of a leaderless country. In one of my last interviews to Weekly, I remember telling you that there were four leaders, with Anerood Jugnauth (SAJ) still at the helm and the PMSD still in government but no leadership. Right from day one of the new regime, it was clear that the SAJ we knew was no more and unable to control himself or his government. The situation that was already bad under the previous regime became worse and finally calamitous, with a number of ministers acting as super ministers interfering in the working of some of our fundamental institutions, including the police. I was among those who rang the alarm bell and called for the replacement of a PM who, through no fault of his own probably but as a result of age and nature taking its toll, was unable to assume his responsibilities and that was utterly detrimental to the country. The so-called papa-piti deal was to me a better deal for the country on condition that the new PM, once ‘anointed’, gave himself a reasonable delay and called for a new general election, which unfortunately he didn’t. In the meantime, he has been trying – and this is what I call doing his best – to clear the mess and accelerate his growth process, in other words, his maturity as a political leader and a statesman but he is still unable to have a complete grasp on either his party or his government or to become the inspiring figure he wants to be. Charisma is unfortunately not an inherited or easily acquired attribute!
Pravind Jugnauth promised: ‘Next year, Mauritius will be a big construction site’. Yet another promise or this statement is to be taken seriously this time round?
Pravind Jugnauth might be well intentioned and the objective of his government is indeed to initiate a number of infrastructural projects in the coming years. However, it remains to be seen whether the country has the capacity, in terms of human resources especially, to undertake all those projects, the most important one being the Metro Express that should eventually improve the quality of life of the population.
As far as the predicted growth for next year, Statistics Mauritius is talking about 3.9% while the Mauritius Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCI) is brandishing 4.4%! Where would you put your money?
I’d go along with those reliable economists who are cautiously projecting a 4+% growth for next year. However, what is of greater interest to me and, I presume to most of us, is to know whether the intended growth is likely to create the necessary employment opportunities to the army of unemployed, especially those university graduates who, out of despair, are increasingly looking out for greener pastures overseas.
Some people are predicting an early election while Pravind Jugnauth is insisting that the next general election will not happen before 2019 and may even go beyond 2020. What is your prediction?
There are, according to me, two factors that can precipitate an early election. The first and less likely one is a shift in loyalty of some MSM MPs or Muvman Liberater (ML) MPs drawn to the Labour Party as they start feeling the turning of the tide in their respective constituencies, mainly rural, in favour of the latter party. The second one is the Privy Council ruling in the DPP’s appeal against our Supreme Court’s favourable judgment in the conflict of interest case against Pravind Jugnauth. If the Privy Council rules against him, he will have no other alternative than to call for an early election. Otherwise, he and his MSM with its ML ally have a comfortable majority in the National Assembly to complete their five-year mandate.
How would you rate the government’s three-year performance?
Except for the two important measures I mentioned earlier and the well-intentioned educational reform to do away with the CPE rat race, and with two more years to go, the government balance sheet still remains in the red. One may legitimately expect it to turn ‘orange’!
Are you saying that the education reform that took place this year is something positive and that it has brought an end to the rat race?
I believe there are many positive elements in the education reform that is being put in place. The minister would, however, be well advised to enter into productive dialogue with some of the stakeholders in the field of education that have so far been discarded. She should also insist and see to it that education is not restricted to the acquisition of knowledge but that of values as well.
What is your prediction for the next election if the scenario of a Labour/PMSD against an MMM/MSM alliance does take place?
Let me first underscore the determining factor that assures the electoral success of any party or coalition of parties: Who is the candidate for the post of prime minister? The voter in whatever constituency he lives votes not only for his three MPs but also and above all for the next prime minister. As of today, and with the above proviso, I’ll bet on a Labour/PMSD victory.
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