SAJ (1930-2021): The struggle to turn Mauritius into a republic

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Sir Anerood Jugnauth was one of the key players in the transformation of Mauritius into a republic. Here is the story of that struggle, and just how complicated a fight it turned out to be.

1) The first attempt

Although the idea of turning Mauritius into a republic was germinating within the Labour Party led by Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam before it lost power in 1982, by the late 70s, it had fallen out of favour within the grand old party. “After the 1977 coup in Seychelles, the Labour Party started moving away from the idea with Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam feeling it was safer to retain a governor general,” Jocelyn Chan Low, former head of the history and political science faculty at the University of Mauritius, tells l’express. The reason, according to historian Sateeanund Peerthum, “was that Seewoosagur Ramgoolam thought that moving towards a republic with its own republic would increase the risk of a Mauritian coup d’état as well”. It was not until the Labour Party lost power in 1982 and Sir Anerood Jugnauth’s MSM came to power in the 1983 election – after a traumatic split within the MMM – that the idea of turning Mauritius into a republic once again became centre stage.

Towards the end of 1983, Anerood Jugnauth as prime minister introduced a bill in parliament to turn Mauritius into a republic. The problem was that Jugnauth’s MSM government lacked the three-fourths supermajority in parliament needed to make such a drastic constitutional change. This meant that the government would need the opposition to back the bill as well. Here was the other problem: no one else seemed to be backing the move: Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam – out of power – opposed the move making support from the Labour Party unlikely. But so did the MMM, for different reasons. “The MMM felt that the Mauritian system gave too much power to the prime minister, so what Paul Bérenger and the MMM wanted was to balance the system more by giving some prime ministerial powers to a president,” explains Peerthum.

Mauritius turned into a Republic on the 12th of March 1992. The event was celebrated at the Champ-de-Mars.

Jugnauth had the opposite view: “Anerood Jugnauth did not want to dilute the position of prime minister or its power,” says Chan Low. What Jugnauth proposed in the bill was more or less a simple rebranding of the governor-general as the new president of a Mauritian republic. In parliament, the MMM proposed 12 tweaks to the bill, which the MSM could not agree with. With no agreement in sight, the MMM proposed that the third reading of the bill be delayed to allow for more discussions. But the gulf between the two parties on what the presidency in the proposed form should look like was too wide. In the end, when it came up for a vote, the MMM abstained from voting, and without the supermajority needed to push the bill through, this first attempt at making Mauritius a republic floundered. “At the time, the matter went no further than that,” recalls Chan Low.

2) The republic comes back

Since the first attempt in 1983, the MMM stuck to its guns. With Bérenger in 1987 insisting that his party backed the introduction of a directly-elected president in a new Mauritian republic. In 1989, matters picked up steam. “I was in New York at the time, but we kept hearing reports of talks between the MMM and the Labour Party, which was now led by Satcam Boolell for an alliance in the next elections,” Peerthum says. So on the night of 24 December 1989, Jugnauth reached out to Shyam Oodith, a businessman known to be close to MMM’s Cassam Uteem to meet with some MMM people. Travelling incognito in Oodith’s Mazda, Jugnauth met with Uteem, Prem Nababsing and Jean Claude de l’Estrac at Oodith’s house to open talks with the MMM.

Thus began a series of meetings between the two parties – most of them at Oodith’s house. The result was an official alliance announcement by the two parties on 19 July 1990. A document formalising the alliance was signed between both parties, with Bérenger and Nababsing signing to commit the MMM and Jugnauth and Karl Offman representing the MSM. Among the terms of the agreement were that the MSM and the MMM would present a bill to make Mauritius a republic, with Jugnauth as prime minister and Bérenger as the new republic’s first president. In case the alliance failed to get the seats needed to pass such a bill, Bérenger would become number three in government after Jugnauth and Nababsing – who was going to become the alliance’s deputy prime minister. Now there was just the matter of dealing with dissent within their parties against the republican programme. Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo – an MSM minister at the time – opposed the pact. And within the MMM too, concerns started being raised about the project. “Not everybody in the MMM was happy with this. I remember this because I was in one such meeting in the MMM’s regional committee in Curepipe where such concerns were raised,” Chan Low maintains, “the question on the mind of some in the MMM was if Bérenger was going to become a president, and above party politics, what would happen to the MMM and who would replace him?” Technically, the MMM was still formally an opposition party.

3) The second try

Confident of the MMM support for the bill from within the opposition ranks, Anerood Jugnauth’s government prepared a draft bill in 1990 on turning Mauritius into a republic. The second such attempt to push such a bill through. Under the bill, the governor-general at the time, Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo (formerly the finance minister under the previous Labour government who was credited with starting talks with the IMF to push through an economic reform programme), would briefly also continue to serve as Mauritius’ first president.

The new leader of the Labour Party, Navin Ramgoolam, voiced his opposition to the bill. “The reason Navin Ramgoolam gave for opposing the bill is that it did not mention the Privy Council leading some to doubt whether the bill also meant changing the structure of our court system too,” explains Chan Low. Other reasons were the possibility of the commonwealth not recognizing the new Mauritian republic as well as a future president slowly nibbling away at prime ministerial powers. Lutchmeenaraidoo wanted a select committee to study the bill and threatened not to vote for the bill and resign as minister. The PMSD, led by Gaetan Duval, backed Lutchmeenaraidoo’s suggestion. Just to get an idea of how strange this situation was becoming; Jugnauth’s bill was being opposed by the Labour Party – Satcam Boolell was deputy prime minister after all – and Lutchmeenaraidoo from within the government, while Jugnauth was banking on support to pass the bill from the MMM in the opposition. And no one knew whether, even with MMM support, Jugnauth would have the votes needed to pass the bill at all. Just to make sure, two Labour MPs were coaxed into joining the MSM, adding to their numbers. Even then, with a razor-slim supermajority, the MSM and the MMM would need every vote it could get, and with the speaker Ajay Daby – having the deciding vote in such cases – the possibility was there that the whole thing could fall apart by just having one vote less.

This led to one of the stranger episodes in Mauritian parliamentary history: Raj Virahsawmy, previously an MSM MP, now sitting as an independent, decided to back the bill – but under protest, because the issue had not been debated comprehensively outside parliament. It looked like Jugnauth and Bérenger would have the three-fourths supermajority after all, even if it was the thinnest of margins. As the parliamentary session took a recess, Lutchmeenraidoo and Duval met in Boolell’s office with Navin Ramgoolam. With Duval meeting with the speaker as well. After the parliamentarians had finished their dinner, Raj Virahsawmy seemed to have disappeared. He was in the office of Satcam Boolell, where Lutchmeenaraidoo, Duval and Ramgoolam were trying to get him to switch his vote. Finally, Virahsawmy left parliament with PMSD’s Alan Driver.

Without Virahsawmy’s vote, and without Daby’s backing of the bill either, Jugnauth simply adjourned parliament. “Sequestering Raj Virahsawmy like that was a nasty bit of work,” laughs Peerthum, “without the numbers, Jugnauth and Bérenger did not want to risk the bill being rejected, so they simply adjourned for the night without voting on it.” The next day, Jugnauth fired Lutchmeenaraidoo, Boolell and Ramjuttun as ministers, leading to the remaining Labour Party ministers Marie France Roussety, Ramesh Jeewoolall and Clarel Malherbes also quitting and the Labour Party formally quitting the government. Jugnauth put parliament on a brief break promising that, when it started work again, there would a “new team” at the helm. “From the outside this just looked like politics,” insists Chan Low, “there was no great debate within the public about what the bill meant, at the time we at the university just published a small booklet on it, but that was just symbolic. For everybody else, no one quite knew of what was going on were going to be.”

4) Getting parliament in line

With the exit of the Labour party, Jugnauth’s MSM suddenly found itself a minority government, outnumbered by the opposition and dependent on support from the MMM from the other side of the chamber. In a party meeting in Rose Hill, Prem Nababsing announced that he would quit as opposition leader and pledged the MMM’s support to Jugnauth until the next election. Jugnauth felt that he needed some time to consolidate support for his republic bill and proposed that the MMM formally join the government to fill up the space – and six ministerial seats – left behind by the Labour Party. So, the Labour Party was out and the MMM in. Bérenger, having failed to win his seat in the 1987 elections, could not be a minister and was thus appointed as the government’s adviser on nuclear disarmament.

Top of the list for the newly constituted cabinet was the MMM’s new attorney general Jayen Cuttaree to prepare the ground for getting rid of Daby as speaker. For the MMM and the MSM, by not backing them on the republic bill, Daby had effectively sided with the opposition. The MSM and the MMM had the numbers to do that, so after demanding that Daby resign, Jugnauth came out with a no-confidence motion against the speaker. In response, the Labour Party came up with a no-confidence motion against the government. The motion against Daby won out 50-10, following which Cuttaree proposed a constitutional motion to declare Daby’s seat vacant.

It took nearly three weeks of wrangling in parliament, but in the end, “they had the majority and replaced Ajay Daby with Iswurdeo Seetaram”. This was December 1990. With the speaker safely in the bag, in January 1991, Bérenger confidently told Reuters that he would be the president in a new republic modelled on that of India. The next step would be to try to win the required supermajority needed to try to pass the bill again in the 1991 election.

5) Third time was the charm

Although the document signed between the MSM and the MMM pledged that their alliance would usher in a republic and install Bérenger as its first president, during campaigning, a poll showed that presenting Bérenger as future president would cost the alliance votes. Not less because it was something that the Labour-PMSD bloc was making one of its key campaign themes. Jugnauth showed Bérenger the poll. “So the MMM turned to its politburo to decide who to present as president instead,” Chan Low outlines. Within the MMM, Bérenger first offered the job to Prem Nababsing. He refused. Then it was offered to Cassam Uteem, who accepted. “The MMM-MSM alliance did not put Uteem’s name on the election manifesto, however,” Peerthum points out. According to the fall-back option of the agreement between the two parties, Bérenger would become number three in government, with the alliance not making it known who the first president of the republic would be.

In the elections of September 15, 1991, the MMM-MSM bloc won 57 out of the 60 elected seats up for grabs, with the Labour Party winning just three. They had the speaker, and now, Jugnauth and Bérenger had the numbers too. Now the problem was who was going to be the first president. “The MMM had already promised the seat to Cassam Uteem.” This was resolved when Jugnauth convinced the MMM to allow Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo, who was the Governor-General, to continue as the country’s first president for a few months – as Jugnauth had proposed in his bill in 1990 – after which Uteem would take over.

On December 10, parliament passed the Constitution of Mauritius (Amendment no.4) bill – more or less identical with the 1990 version, but with the privy council mentioned this time – which would formally make Mauritius a republic as from March 12, 1992, the parliament from being the Legislative Assembly to becoming the National Assembly. “The MMM voted for it, but it was not a republic with the empowered presidency that the party wanted; this idea would come back much later in 2014,” concludes Chan Low.

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