On 22 November, voters in 130 villages across the country head to the polls to participate in the first village council elections held since 2012. 5,490 candidates belonging to no less than 610 groups are contesting 1,170 village council seats up for grabs (with each village supposed to elect 9 councilors each) ranging from Triolet which has 18,399 voters to Chamarel with just 574.
On the face of it, there does not seem to be much stake here: village councils don’t have much power, they cannot raise much cash themselves and their power is mostly restricted to hosting the national day and new year festivals, maintaining cremation grounds and neighborhood libraries. And unlike municipal elections, political parties don’t seem to figure much. At least openly. “Village elections are not organized around political parties, but around ad-hoc groups” explains Ram Seegobin of Lalit. So what is really at stake in these village council elections and why is everyone watching it closely?
Where politics comes in
Unlike municipal elections where political parties openly put up and back candidates, the politics of the village council election takes on a different form. The councilors elected in the 130 village councils in turn elect councilors in the seven district councils in the country. Unlike the relatively powerless and cash-strapped village councils, “district councils can do things like infrastructural works in their district such as tarring roads or putting pressure on the National Development Unit or the Road Development Authority to push forward some projects” Seegobin points out. It is at the level of the district councils that the political parties start openly vying for influence, particularly through the presidents of these councils.
Think of it as a transmission belt. The village council election is a messy starting point. “There are just so many people and so many shifting alliances that parties tend to shy away from backing any particular horse” according to historian and former academic Jocelyn Chan Low. Party agents and the politically ambitious contest the village election hoping to be propelled further on to the district council where they are then courted through promises of a national-level political career – the current Minister of Public Service Vikram Hurdoyal was until 2019 the Chairman of the Flacq District Council – or through nominations to parastatals. This is why despite having no power and, at least formally, no discernable politics, the number of groups contesting village council elections is still on the rise (610 groups in 2020, compared to 420 in 2012) and turnout is still much higher than in the openly political municipal elections. Turnout in the last municipal election was 35.6 percent, compared to 50.5 percent in the last village council election. Politics is very much there. Just done differently.
The test of strength
Despite their names, there is not as strict an urban-rural divide as is commonly assumed when it comes to village council elections. For instance, several village councils fall within ‘urban’ constituencies. The village council of Richelieu falls within constituency 1 (Grand River North West-Port Louis), five fall within constituency 4 (Port Louis North-Long Mountain), three in constituency 17 (Curepipe-Midlands), and three in constituency 20 (Beau Bassin-Petite Riviére). Nevertheless, the village council election (leading to dominance in district councils) is seen as a key test of strength between the Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth’s Mouvement Socialiste Militant, grappling with a shrinking economy, rising unemployment, and street protests over the Wakashio, and his key rival Navin Ramgoolam’s Labour Party, looking to bounce back after two successive general election defeats in 2014 and 2019. Both parties rely on rural areas for the bulk of their support.
“For the MSM it's important to get many of their people, agents, and sympathizers into village councils to show it still has support within rural areas and the same is the case for the Labour Party,” says Chan Low. The party symbols, banners, and buntings may be absent, but that does not mean the parties themselves are.
Why so long?
Theoretically, village council elections are supposed to be held every six years. So why are village council elections being held now, eight years after they were last held in 2012?
The problem is that while the constititution, since 1982, mandates that the National Assembly is automatically dissolved every five years making it impossible to delay general elections, the constitution doesn’t talk about village council elections at all. In fact, the only place where the village council elections are talked about is the Local Government Act. “This means that the government has a lot more discretion in deciding when village council elections will take place and that’s unacceptable,” says Seegobin.
What that means is that even though the last village council elections were supposed to be held in 2018 (according to the Local Government Act), in effect, governments can simply change the date by amending the Local Government Act itself. And so, in 2015, the Local Government Act was amended to empower the government to decide the year the election will take place and then again in 2018 to push the village council elections back further to 2020. This is why voters in villages across the country are heading to the polls now.