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The flurries of voting day in Mauritius

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An exercise in democracy: A woman casting her vote in the general elections in Mauritius on Wednesday
An exercise in democracy: A woman casting her vote in the general elections in Mauritius on Wednesday

Pranay Gupte

Low turnout leads to the Prime Minister going from door to door urging constituents to cast their votes.

When I covered politics for The New York Times a very long ago in the United States and in other countries that allowed for adult franchise, a wise old Editor would often caution against making projections, particularly on election day. Of course, those times were before smart pollsters brought their sophisticated techniques to gauge exit polls and voter sentiments, and well before television stations flashed informal results before candidacies were declared successful.

The TV stations here in Mauritius do no such thing; there are few, if any, reliable polls; votes are hand counted; and as this island-nation's 880,000 registered voters cast their ballots on Wednesday, it was not even clear just how many Mauritians showed up at the booths set up in schools and public institutions. Radio stations broadcast differing percentile figures throughout the day. Although Wednesday had been declared a national holiday to encourage voters to trek to the polls, it was clear that enough of them chose leisure over the obligations of citizenship.

So clear, in fact, that Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam — who is leading a three-party alliance that he hopes will give him a second successive five-year term — took to the radio waves himself and appealed to his fellow countrymen to overcome their ennui. In the afternoon, he walked from door to door in his constituency urging people to cast their ballot.

It was not something that Prime Ministers are wont to do, but the 63-year-old Mr. Ramgoolam is that rare breed of politician who actually knows many of his constituents by name, and makes it a point to stay in personal contact even when election season is over. So visiting constituents' homes was generally perceived as something less than political opportunism.

He shares that characteristic with his political nemesis, Paul Berenger, the former Prime Minister who leads the left-win Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM). In an interview with The Hindu, Mr. Berenger said he was energised by his tour through his constituency and those of 19 others; these constituencies, plus one in the neighbouring island of Rodriguez, send 60 victors to the national parliament.

But Mr. Berenger acknowledged that Mr. Ramgoolam's alliance had “far more money, many more cars, and lots more party workers”.

Still, he said, he was confident that the MMM would win. Asked about the general perception that his French ancestry made him tilt in favour of the economic and other interests of European nations such as France and Britain, Mr. Berenger seemed unperturbed. He sensed the subtext of my question.

“Look,” Mr. Berenger said, “India need not worry if I became Prime Minister. I have always said that the relationship between our two countries is umbilical. It cannot be broken, it can only be strengthened.”

One way of interpreting his remark is that even under a leftist government led by a representative of a minority Franco community in an island-nation of 1.3 million that is dominated by Hindus — with Creoles, Muslims, Chinese, and Christians added to the mix — Mauritius would find it disadvantageous to strain its relationship with India. After all, Mauritius channels nearly $12 billion in foreign direct investment to India annually, making it the latter's biggest supplier of FDI. Rest assured that much of this money is not indigenous: it comes from somewhere else, and Mauritius surely gets a percentage of the take. Would Mr. Berenger really want to re-shape that reality?

“My reality is good governance,” Mr. Berenger said, in his deep French-coated voice. “My concern is electoral and political reforms that would bring more justice in our system.”

I was tempted to ask why such reforms were not undertaken when Mr. Berenger served as Prime Minister from 2003 to 2005. But I anticipated his answer: Not sufficient time. Besides, it would have been unkind to pose such a question, even to a veteran politician, on a day that he was so earnestly trying to drum out votes for his party.

I put a different sort of question to Nita Deerpalsing, a parliamentarian and spokeswoman for Mr. Ramgoolam's Mauritius Labour Party. Was she satisfied with voter turnout?

“Very satisfied,” Ms Deerpalsing said.

Did she plan to speak to the Prime Minister about her hunches concerning election results?

“I'm concentrating all my energies in my constituencies,” she said, somewhat sharply.

Will the three-party alliance win when the election results are formally announced by midday on Thursday?

“Of course.”

That seemed as good a thought with which to gracefully exit the conversation.

To put it another way, as my wise old Editor would say, never project, never predict, never prognosticate. Tomorrow is, after all, another day — and a single day can be an entire lifetime in the politics of clangorous multiparty democracies, even if they are tiny island states whose main claim to global fame was the fact that the long extinct dodo bird was spotted nowhere else in the world but here, by Dutch settlers more than three centuries ago.

The dodo bird may have been long gone, but Mauritian politics has taken full flight. Stay tuned.

(Pranay Gupte is a veteran journalist and author. His forthcoming book is on India and the Middle East.)

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