“The Privy Council will take into account the fact that a decision against a sitting PM will be a political tsunami”

Avec le soutien de
Lindsay Rivière, former president of the Media Trust.

Lindsay Rivière, former president of the Media Trust.

This week, Weekly sits down with Lindsay Rivière, former president of the Media Trust. He talks about the lessons learnt from the by-election in No.18, why he thinks the parties can’t go it alone in the general elections, the alliances he thinks will be formed for the next election, his opinion on the economy and his impressions of Pravind Jugnauth as PM.

After the by-election, there are all sort of rumours about which party is going to join which, and which alliance is in the making. What do you make of these rumours? 

I think there will be rumours for some time to come. This No. 18 by-election was initially presented as being futile and a waste of time, but it turned out that there are a number of important lessons to learn from it. Aside from that, I don’t think much will be happening until we clearly hear on two very important issues in 2018: The first is the case of Pravind Jugnauth in London. The second is Navin Ramgoolam’s case in court. These two will determine a lot of things. I think all the main parties are sitting it out and waiting for the outcome of these cases. There will be a lot of speculation and rumours, but no actual decisions or changes in the political landscape until then. The only important one will be whether the Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate (PMSD) goes back into the government. But they too are waiting. 

Do you really see the Privy Council actually taking a decision concerning a sitting prime minister and changing the fate of our country? 

They will take into account the fact that a decision against a sitting prime minister will be a political tsunami and make things very difficult for the sitting government. But let’s not prejudge. Similarly, in Navin Ramgoolam’s case, if he is convicted, he will appeal. That will take months and years again. But that should not stop parties from laying out their strategies for the next few months. 

You mentioned the lessons to learn from the by-election. What exactly did we learn?

What we learnt from the by-election is that the government is hard pressed. It is on its toes. The political act of cowardice of not putting up a candidate may have temporarily saved its skin, but in the coming months, it will be under more pressure by a Labour Party rise that might be unstoppable. 

Would that lead to a Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MSM)/PMSD reunification?

I am not sure Pravind Jugnauth’s main choice would be to bring back Xavier-Luc Duval and the PMSD back in. He will need more than just the PMSD and its currently established force. 

How can the PMSD justify a return to the government after everything they have said? 

I honestly don’t see that happening. It would make Duval look like a fool, the PMSD like a non-principled organisation, and they will be the laughing stock of the whole nation. That would really be a deathblow to the PMSD’s ambitions that have already been severely curtailed after the by-election. The government does not need the PMSD in the short term because of its numerical strength. In the long term, the MSM will need more than a 10% PMSD. So there are only two powerful alliances likely to confront each other: Labour-PMSD and Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM)-MSM with maybe an MP joining in. 

What about the Muvman Liberater (ML)? Why haven’t you mentioned it at all?

I don’t take the ML representation very seriously. 

Why not? 

I think Ivan Collendavelloo has lost his gamble of taking the militants away from Paul Bérenger. The ML is a spent force in terms of electoral contribution. They will be the first victims of MMM-MSM talks, if there is to be a deal. 

If?

I think there will be a deal because what is the alternative? Pravind Jugnauth cannot go to the next election on his record. At any rate, elections are not won on a track record, economic or otherwise. Anerood Jugnauth did a lot for the economy, but he was kicked out. Navin Ramgoolam built the airport, roads and so many other infrastructural projects, but he was also kicked out. I think Mauritians want to be led by a group of people with a vision. 

How do you define vision? 

Vision was Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam at independence, Gaëtan Duval in tourism, Bérenger giving back dignity to Mauritians and an alternative future, Navin Ramgoolam modernising Mauritius and so on. Anerood and Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo also presented a strong vision for the country. What do we see today? Some development and some bits of progressive legislation, but that does not add up to a vision. The second element is leadership. Mauritians like strong leaders; our political history has been marked by strong men: Sir Seewoosagur, Gaëtan Duval, Bissoondoyal, Razack Mohamed, Anerood Jugnauth and Navin Ramgoolam. Pravind Jugnauth lacks this; he lacks charisma and he knows it. And because he knows he has not got the charisma, he wants to work on the bilan. I think he is wrong there. Elections are not won on the bilan. People are excited by a vision and a leader or a coalition of leaders. So they will compare him with Navin Ramgoolam in 2019. So he is in a difficult situation. He has to extend a hand to the MMM. 

Will that save him? 

I don’t know, but that increases his chances certainly. But that poses a problem for Bérenger. Is this government worth joining? 

If you were Bérenger, what would your answer to that be? 

Well, Bérenger is in a tight corner too; he cannot by any stretch of the imagination go back to Ramgoolam after 2014. He was hoping for a Boolell-led Labour Party.

Do you think that will happen? 

I don’t think so! Even without Ramgoolam, I don’t think Labour will turn to Boolell. The party structure may well want someone like Anil Bachoo, Rajesh Jeetah or Yatin Varma, with Ramgoolam pulling the strings from behind the scenes. I am not sure the party apparatus wants Boolell to take over. So a Boolell-led Labour Party might be another figment of Bérenger’s imagination. Now if the Labour option is closed and, to me, it is certainly compromised by current events, what will Bérenger do? That takes us to the second lesson from Quatre Bornes: the MMM is slowly fizzling out. It’s gone from 44% in the 1980s to 14% today. Sixteen per cent according to DCDM polls and it has lost seven consecutive elections, has not been in power for 12 years, does not have a single rural MP and it’s slowly losing its second tier leaders. So the MMM is in a very serious situation. This is dangerous, not just for the party, but for democracy because it’s one of the two big parties, the other big party being the Labour Party. 

Don’t you see the PMSD picking up the MMM’s electorate? 

This is what everybody was expecting, but it did not happen. 

What happened to the Duval, who was the favourite personality and best minister according to opinion polls?

I have conducted surveys for the past 12 years. Duval has always been one of the two most popular figures, along with Anerood Jugnauth. He has always polled 70 to 80%. He is personally popular and is liked. He is polished, and people like that. But that has never been reflected in his party’s standing. He gets 70%, but his party gets between 5 and 8%. 

Why?

Because people always distinguish between the man and the party. There is no equation between the leader and the party. 

Does this apply to all parties? 

Not necessarily. I think Bérenger and the MMM are much closer, as are Ramgoolam and Labour. But the PMSD has always had a very popular leader, but not a popular electoral structure. Also, I think Duval made a major mistake: he wanted the PMSD to go national, which is a good thing, but far too quickly, without first consolidating his base. I am not sure that fielding a candidate in Quatre Bornes was a smart thing to do. 

Are you saying he should not have taken part in the election? 

He could have left the way open to Arvin Boolell and invested in a future alliance with Labour and allowed people to continue to have the perception of the PMSD revival and the PMSD rise. Duval was always popular, but he presented no danger to Labour or to the majority group. When he wanted to win that election and go national and present himself as a future prime minister, the perception changed. And we may very well see the 70% popularity rate melt. He said some very nasty things about Ramgoolam in the by-election, and Ramgoolam is not a forgiving man. 

Has Duval burnt all his bridges?

No, the alliance is likely to happen anyway, but on very different terms. Now Ramgoolam is back and has seen the PMSD for what it is worth. So he won’t be very generous when the time comes. Everyone can see that Ramgoolam wants to cut Duval down to size by saying that Labour will go alone, or at worst with the Mouvement Patriotique etc. After cutting the PMSD down to size, he will want to see them crawling back for a dozen tickets.

What do you make of the Roshi Bhadain phenomenon? 

I have always said that our electoral system has been devised by the British colonial government and Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam to present us with a system favouring big parties, political alliances and power sharing. I think your young readers have to understand that. The British were obsessed with political and ethnic division, and so they devised a system that converted 40 constituencies into 20 constituencies where there is less room for corruption and influence. They went from single member to three-member constituencies. That was deliberate and meant to favour the big parties as well as ethnic representation. That system has not changed one dot. No hope for independent candidates and small parties. There has to be alliances. What is power in Mauritius? A majority of 36 members, a political representation that cuts across urban and rural areas and across ethnic groups. You have to be representative. You have to have pre-electoral alliances, not post-electoral. The only election without alliances was in 1976 and that was an absolute disaster! Nobody got a majority, they were running around Port Louis trying to put together a majority, there was political blackmail on a scale that had never been seen before and in the end we had a government which was on one limb until 1982. We had two devaluations and everything crumbled. Those who are saying ‘Let’s go alone and then we will talk’ don’t know what they are saying. With post-electoral alliances, you may very well have a non-representative government; you won’t know what the government will look like or which ethnic groups will be there as in 1959 when there were no Muslim MPs. 

Isn’t that what the best loser system is supposed to address?

Yes, but only marginally. You may well have big political surprises where someone has 20% of the vote, but no seats. 

Are you saying that we should have no electoral reform? 

No, we should have some – and I say some – electoral reform for better representation, and for smaller parties and so on. That can be arranged; Rama Sithanen has given some leads. But the major thinking behind the electoral system, i.e. sharing of power between parties and all ethnic groups, is essential for Mauritius. This is what the British intended and what has happened and this is why the country has held together. In that context, I think Bhadain has no future. 

Is he just a victim of the system or of himself? 

(Laughs) I think both. The man has made quite a lot of moves that are not very inviting. But, that aside, I don’t see these smaller groups going anywhere. Even Jack Bizlall, who got 10% of the vote in the last by-election, I am told, benefitted from some opportunistic MSM votes. Rezistans ek Alternativ is down to 2%. Never look at things at face value. We may be frustrated and angry at this. The system is blocked. It’s terrible, but it’s a fact of life. I can understand the frustration, but that’s the nature of the beast. So for me, the natural solution is an MMM-MSM alliance as the two parties are, in a way, branches of the same tree and a Labour-PMSD alliance as the two parties are very old accomplices. There is no room for anyone else.

What about small parties?

Those are like planets revolving around a sun.

No room for them?

Only on the fringe. 

What is your take on the economy? 

We should be looking at 6 or 7 % to take Mauritius into the high income category. We may well be fooling ourselves. The international situation is gradually improving. Bringing down the tax rate might stimulate America, and if America does better then the world does better, so that’s a plus, so markets will improve. On the local front, there are pockets of growth. Tourism is not bad, construction temporarily is doing well, but that will stop. There are export prospects in some areas, and there are little things like infrastructure, Metro Express and all that. It creates an illusion of solid growth. I won’t call that solid growth. 

Why? 

The international situation is volatile; anything can happen in Iran or North Korea that changes everything. In Mauritius, I am worried about a number of things — the average growth that we have is public sector driven. That’s not ideal. Growth should be private sector driven to generate exportable goods and permanent jobs. That is not the case. Big infrastructure projects can stimulate growth for a while, but they will end, then what will you do? Second thing, investment as a percentage of GDP is down to 17%. It should be 27%. That means the private sector is not doing its part. Thirdly, 80% of the FDI we have is very much real-estate driven, which is bad because it’s only enriching a few temporarily, and that does not create exportable goods. We’ve tried everything, but we have not seen Mauritius become the headquarters of Microsoft in Africa, or of car manufacturers. That is not happening. There is some investment, but that’s driven by the same people, the large private sector groups. Very few foreigners are investing in productive investments. Our trade deficit is Rs100 billion a year. If you take out services, export figures of industrial goods are down, unemployment is still 7%... 

Do you think this bleak picture has anything to do with the fact that we have no finance minister? 

I don’t think so. Economic growth has very little to do with government. The private sector is developing this country irrespective of who is finance minister. I think that may well help because decisions go faster. 

What about transparency and good governance? Would you have accepted to have a CEO who is also the financial director in a company?

Yes, but who? With Lutchmeenaraidoo out of the picture, who is left? It could have been Duval, but Duval has left. Pravind seems to have a lot of energy. 

But with nothing happening, how is that energy manifesting itself? 

(Laughs) I am a bit less severe towards Pravind than many other people are because I think he means well. He is trying hard, but is poorly supported and surrounded. He does not have a strong team around him. Besides, he is a party man and that may affect his performance as a statesman. Family, friends, supporters… A statesman should be a national figure above the party. He seems to act as a party leader, whereas if you become prime minister, you have to go one level up and become a national figure. He has to break free from the shackles of the party. 

For more views and in-depth analysis of current issues, Weekly magazine (Price: Rs 25) or subscribe to Weekly for Rs110 a month. (Free delivery to your doorstep). Email us on: [email protected]

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