PORT LOUIS: Nearly one million Mauritians head to the polls on Wednesday for the tenth legislative election since the island nation’s independence, with the key campaign issue: the proposed strengthening of presidential powers.
The issue of constitutional reform makes the polls one of the most important for Mauritius since the independence of the Indian Ocean nation from Britain in 1968.
Two rival coalitions are competing for 62 parliamentary seats — 60 on the main island of Mauritius, and two on the small island of Rodrigues, some 560 kilometres (350 miles) to the east.
On one side, the centre-left group brings together the Labour Party (PTR) of Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam and the former opposition Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) party. Ramgoolam is expected to want to run for president, a position currently elected by parliament.
Should they win, the PTR-MMM coalition have agreed to try to amend the constitution so the president will be directly elected.
On the other side is the Alliance Lepep, a centre-right coalition led by former president Anerood Jugnauth and three other political parties.
But Lepep fiercely oppose the constitutional reform proposed by the government alliance.
It faces a tough fight: the PTR held a small majority in the past parliament, but now is strengthened further with the backing of the MMM.
Creation of ‘a little king’?
If the coalition wins, they said they would also strengthen the powers of the president, which would need a three-quarters majority in parliamentary seats of more than 50 members.
MMM leader Paul Berenger insists the plans to boost the president’s role will create a “more democratic system” by stripping some power from the prime minister and end having “all the power in the hands of one person”.
But Lepep leader Xavier Duval fears that reforms would create “a little king of the country” who “will benefit from both civil and criminal immunity, and will do what they want for seven years”.
In total, 729 candidates are running for a seat in parliament. In addition to the 62 elected by voters, eight others will be selected by the election commission, under a complex system aimed to balance the distribution of power between parties and communities.
Mauritius is officially divided into four ethnic groups: Hindus, Muslims, Chinese and the “general population”, which consists mainly of Creoles and mixed-race people.
The leader of the largest party becomes the prime minister, and if the PTR-MMM alliance wins, outgoing Prime Minister Ramgoolam would return to the position.
But if he then manages to push through constitutional reform, he is expected to then resign from his post as head of government and as an MP, to run in what would be the country’s first presidential election.
Berenger would then become prime minister, a position the MMM chief has already held from 2003 to 2005.
MMM, in opposition since 2005, joined the PTR in September after sealing a political agreement to carry out the constitutional reform.
In the wake of the merger of PTR and MMM, President Kailash Purryag dissolved parliament in October, paving the way for early elections.
Campaigning started on Oct 12, and has so far been carried out calmly.
Both sides have campaigned on strengthening the economy. Mauritius is one of the richest countries in Africa, a middle-income country of some 1.3 million people, with a per capita GDP of just over $9,000.—AFP
Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2014