Saturday, 13 December 2014

A Tropical Earthquake

Voters in the Republic of Mauritius went to the polls earlier this week to vote in the tenth General Elections following independence in 1968.  There was a lot at stake.  The governing Labour Party led by Dr Navin Ramgoolam sought to become only the third Prime Minister of Mauritius to secure three consecutive election victories, something first achieved by his father almost forty years earlier.  More significantly, huge constitutional changes were on the table which potentially would have led to the creation of a second Republic.

Mauritius has had a President since becoming a Republic in March 1992, a role which had largely been ceremonial and was a position appointed by the serving Prime Minister.  In many ways it was a role like a Monarch in many other countries,  with duties confined to receiving guests and dignitaries during official State visits.  Ramgoolam proposed fundamental changes to the role which would have included more powers, immunity from prosecution and critically would have resulted in the President being directly elected by the Mauritian electorate with a seven-year term of office.

Opinion polls and most people on the island that I had spoken to since my arrival at the end of November suggested that Ramgoolam was on course to secure a comfortable victory.  However, as results begun trickling through on Thursday lunchtime, it was soon becoming apparent that a stunning upset could be on the cards.  One by one, declarations showed that an Alliance led by Sir Anerood Jugnauth's Militant Socialist Movement (MSM) were securing emphatic victories across Mauritius.  By mid-afternoon it was clear that Jugnauth would indeed be forming the next Government of Mauritius and that ambitious changes to the Republic's constitution had been overwhelmingly rejected by Mauritian voters.  Jugnauth's Alliance had won 47 of the Parliament's 60 seats- a landslide of earthquake proportions.

Yet an even bigger story was brewing, one that even two days after the results were announced leaves most Mauritian's still scratching their heads in disbelief.  Late afternoon on Thursday, reports began emerging that Ramgoolam was in danger of losing his Parliamentary Seat of Pamplemousses and Triolet- one of the safest seats for the Labour Party in Mauritius.  Initially it appeared that Ramgoolam had hung on but by early evening it was clear that the Prime Minister was in severe danger and facing a crisis of monumental proportions.  Confirmation finally arrived at dawn on Friday that the defeated Prime Minister had lost his seat by almost 3,500 votes: a huge margin.

I have attempted to relay the significance of the events to friends and family back in the UK, highlighting the landslide of 1997 as being comparable to the verdict of Mauritian voters this week.  But even this example does not truly illustrate the devastating nature of the result since despite the Labour Party's huge 179 seat majority in the British Parliament, they were never able to unseat the outgoing British Prime Minister John Major who held on in Huntingdon.  These are "safe seats" and it is unthinkable that a Prime Minister can lose his own Parliamentary seat.

Astonishingly this is not the first time that such a dramatic punitive act has been dished out by Mauritian voters.  Back in 1982, Jugnauth ended the political career of Ramgoolam's father, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, with an unprecedented "whitewash" as the Government were swept from power securing no seats in the new Parliament.  The election is referenced as the "60-0" and was the last time a Mauritian Prime Minister was unceremoniously evicted from his own Parliamentary seat.  The irony has not been lost on many since the Ramgoolam family must collectively be sick of the sight of Jugnauth due to this being the second time such a historic outcome has been secured by a party led by him.

I have been disappointed that the news from Mauritius has not received wider international media attention, with little reports on the events so far.  It is true that Mauritius is a relatively small nation, but this was not a routine election and the ramifications of the week's events will be felt for many years to come.  Prior to publishing this post I checked the BBC's website to establish if the story had finally made its African news section.  I am incredibly surprised to learn that some 48 hours later, the story has still not been circulated on the platform.

As political earthquakes go, this is one of the biggest I have ever experienced.  I was too young to personally witness Ramgoolam Snr losing his Parliamentary Seat.  I did however watch live on BBC Television as the outgoing Defence Minister Michael Portillo lost his seat at the 1997 British General Election.  Up until now I would say it was the most historical political event I had ever witnessed although for me personally, the events of 48 hours ago eclipse that moment.  Mauritius has decided and I had a front-row seat to witness a very tropical earthquake.  Watching the declaration at Triolet will be something which will stay with me for the rest of my life.