The Mauritian Political System: An exploratory study

A political system is a social process through which government and governance decisions are made.

It is a consistent pattern of human interactions through which power, resources, and authority flow within an independent society. In other words, it is the process through which the community, either as a whole or through agent representation, makes critical decisions about all aspects of its interactions (Easton, 1990). 

According to Almond and Coleman (2015), an ideal political system must develop and maintain social norms, adapt to the ever-changing macro-environment, and protect society and the system from external vulnerabilities. Furthermore, Jacobs (2007) claims that a political system can take any of the following forms: 

  1. TotalitarianUnder this system, the state or the leader maintains absolute unchecked and total control of the public and sometimes even citizens’ private affairs. Totalitarian leaders, also called autocrats, usually use all means necessary to suppress divergent opinions, such as propaganda, intimidation, and even physical violence. The motive to control and dictate every aspect of its people’s life is mainly for the ruling class/group’s benefit, most economical, and sometimes to advance their ideologies. For this reason, dissenting opinions are not allowed, and those who try to voice their opinions, especially those deemed not “acceptable” by the leadership, are usually silenced. Totalitarian systems are also characterised by a single political party system led and controlled by a few elite individual members of the exclusive ruling class members, whose goal is to maintain tight control of society’s affairs to protect and advance personal interests. Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini are usually cited as classic examples of totalitarian leaders.
  2. OligarchicAn oligarchic political system is a semi-democratic system, which has been designed such that a few individuals exercise and maintain total control and dominance of a large society. An oligarch system usually bears the characteristics of a fair and equal society from afar, but inherent deliberate or organic barriers exist for the majority to get to leadership. The ruling class is usually made of a few elite individuals, the oligarchs, who are generally distinguished from the rest of society’s members by their wealth, kinship, level of education or military and corporate control. Like in totalitarian regimes, the ruling class’s interest is always prioritised, and their voice supersedes the masses’ voice and welfare. The power rests with the members of the privileged and exclusive club.
  3. Democratic system A democracy is a political system where power rests with the people. This is a system where individuals have more rights and freedom to act within certain agreed limits. It means that people make rules that govern themselves. The process of exercising this governance is usually through representatives. The people delegate their power to an elected individual to exercise that power following the electorates’ wishes and aspirations. The nature of the relationship between the people and the government is that of an agent-principal relationship. Democracy, as simple as it sounds, is an ambiguous word, especially in the contemporary sense (Schmitter & Karl, 1991). Democracy is a generic system defining the rules and the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. Democracy takes different forms in different societies. Hence there is no consensus about the universal definition of the system. Various societies tailor their democracies to suit their socio-economic status, traditions and cultural diversities or uniqueness. Nevertheless, the identifying characteristics of a democratic system are the ability to hold the leaders and those in power accountable for their actions and high degrees of decentralisation of power and decision making. 

Democracy is the most common and widely acceptable form of political organisation. The system is perceived as fair and people-centred. Even societies, which have not fully embraced democracy, have progressively adopted several aspects and tenets of democracy to conform to the modern global political trends and norms. The Mauritian political system is a liberal democracy, and we must dig deeper into what real democracy means. 

A democratic system could take one of the following three primary forms: 

  1. Direct Participatory Democracy — This is considered the highest form of expressing the quality of democracy (Morlino, 2004). It is also the original form of democracy practised in ancient empires, such as Greek and Rome. The citizens participate directly in decision-making and not through representatives. Referendum and general elections are the most common method today by which citizens exercise their authority directly. Direct democracy is an essential tool to deal with principal-agent relationship and issue bundling (Matsusaka, 2005). This is where the elected representatives fail to pursue policies they were elected to pursue or what they promised to deliver. It also solves the issues of issue bundling where a representative campaigns on a bundle of topics. The voter votes for him/her based on most of his policies but elects to exercise direct control on critical issues through a referendum. Very few counties, such as Switzerland, have fully embraced instruments of direct democracy, especially at different levels of government.
  2. Indirect/Representative/Liberal Democracy — This is a form of democracy that allows for the free expression and representation of various diverse components and society units. It is the most commonly practised form of democracy in the world today. Under this system, the citizen’s role is limited to electing representatives who are supposed to exercise the decision-making powers on behalf of the electorate. A voter, usually an adult who has attained the voting age, chooses between two or more political parties, generally competing for political ideologies. Democratic institutions, the Constitution, civil societies, and elections are some of the most influential objects that people use to safeguard their interests from the excesses of the representatives’ power and pressure the government to deliver on its manifestos (Morlino, 2004).
  3. Monarchical Constitutional Democracy — Under this system, the country adopts a constitution and a liberal democratic system. However, due to cultural or historical reasons, a king or a queen heads the government but with minimal powers. Most of the time, the king/queen/monarch has a more symbolic role than political. Most of the power rests with the representatives of the people. Britain and Sweden are good examples of such systems. 

The pre-independence Mauritius was a classic example of a blend of two political systems: totalitarian and oligarch. Power and most of the resources were concentrated in the hands of a few. Since the abolition of slavery in 1835, up to 1968, when Mauritius gained independence, the political leadership and control of the different economic sectors preserve the minority British settlers (Lutz & Wils, 1994). 

Since the arrival of Robert Farquhar in 1810 as the first British Governor of Mauritius, the Governor was permanently appointed by the King or Queen of England until independence. The Governor made all the decisions, and his decision was final. The amendments of 1831 saw the introduction of a 15-member council of government, but its role was to advise the Governor. Until 1885, the Governor appointed all the Council members (Lutz & Wils, 1994). 

The amendments of 1885 provided for the first elected representative to the Council. With minor revisions in 1947, this constitutional structure remained in power until independence. Even with the elected members’ introduction, the system was still highly skewed and designed to maintain control in a few settlers’ hands. The voting was only restricted to male British subjects, who have been on the island for at least three years, with property worth 3000 rupees and above or at least with a business paying at least 2000 rupees to the government in taxes. The system was so fashioned to favour the wealthy elite that as of 1909, less than 2% of the adults were eligible to vote (Selvon, 2012). 

Following persistent lobbying, 1948 constitutional amendments expanded the voting base by giving the right to vote to anyone who is literate or anyone who had served in the military. Gender discrimination was also abolished. The Legislative Council replaced the Council of governors. Despite all these changes, the elected members were fewer than the unofficial members appointed directly by the Governor. Therefore, decision-making power is still vested in the Governor’s appointing authority (Lutz & Wils, 1994). 

The 1958 constitutional amendments brought some glimmer of hope. It marked the first foundational step in a long journey of transforming the Mauritius political system from an exclusive oligarchy democracy to liberal representative democracy. With the amendments, democratic institutions were established. For the first time, the judiciary was independent of executive control, set the Public Service Commission and the best loser system (Selvon, 2012). 

The Legislative Council, later renamed Legislative Assembly, had more elected members than those appointed by the executive, effectively tilting power from the executive to the people. The amendments also introduced and enshrined universal suffrage. Subsequent independence negotiations in London established the electoral commission (Meetarbhan, 2018). The system was still an oligarch such that at independence, the plantations and commercial institutions remained in the hands of only 70 Franco-Mauritian families. The political system’s democratisation was meant to address these inequalities and revert the power to the people. 

Despite some shortcomings, the political system in the post-independent Mauritius is that of liberal representative democracy. Liberal democracy has structures providing institutional stability, guarantees liberties, rights, freedom, and equalities of every member of the society. It has a broadly legitimate mechanism through which every eligible citizen participates to elect the government (Morlino, 2004). Hence, liberal democracy encompasses the following key features: 

  1. Rights, freedoms, and equality for all;
  2. Representation mechanism (elections); and
  3. Democratic institutions 

The Constitution of Mauritius provides a framework for the establishment of a democracy that encompasses the above three descriptions as expounded below: 

Rights, freedoms, and equality

The Fundamental basic rights and freedoms are well enshrined and protected by the Republic of Mauritius’s Constitution in Chapter II. Drafted in 1968 and last revised in 2016, the Constitution has an extensive bill of a right that defines various rights and protection of freedoms and liberties (Smith, 1968).

  • Right to life — The Constitution protects the right to life by stating that no one can intentionally have his/her life taken away. However, some exceptions seem to highly diminish these rights, especially those lawfully detained and on “suppression of riot”. 
  • Right to personal liberty — The right to liberty under the Constitution is guaranteed except on 12 listed legal justifiable exceptions.
  • Protection from slavery, servitude, and forced labour — Bearing in mind the dark history of slavery and servitude in Mauritius, this was necessary to enable the society to forge aged as a united nation.
  • Protection from inhuman treatment — This involves the prohibition of any form of torture or any degrading punishment.
  • Right to own property — This includes the right to enjoy private ownership of the property without having it compulsorily taken away.
  • Protection for privacy of home — No unauthorised entry into a government’s private property or other citizens.
  • Protection of the law — Everyone is presumed innocent until proven otherwise and is entitled to a fair and speedy hearing.
  • Protection of freedom of conscience — The purpose of this is to protect the freedom of thought and freedom to practice any religious belief that one might hold or none.
  • Freedom of expression — Everyone has a right to hold and express their opinion without interference.
  • Freedom of assembly — This guarantees freedom to associate, assemble or form any union such as a trade union.
  • Freedom to establish schools — Anyone can start a school, primarily religious schools, if the government does not finance them.
  • Freedom of movement — This includes the right to move and settle anywhere within the Republic of Mauritius.
  • Protection from discrimination — It means that one has a right not to be discriminated against on social bias such as race, caste, creed, disability, or gender.

In a democracy, rights and freedoms are never absolute. The Constitution provides for circumstances under which these rights can be lawfully denied. However, governments always tempt governments to use the exception clauses to restrain the people’s right to enjoy these freedoms thoroughly, especially where enjoyment of these freedoms and exercising these rights seem to conflict with the regime’s interest. For this reason, the Constitution envisages independent solid democratic institutions that will safeguard the people against these government excesses. This is a journey that the Republic of Mauritius is undertaking but more remain to be done. A good example is freedom of expression, where the government has been accused of stifling some media organisations that are deemed too critical of government policies. 

Representation mechanism (elections)

Morlino (2004) claims that the very minimum a democracy can offer is universal adult suffrage. This means every citizen who has attained adult age must be accorded an opportunity to elect his/her representative in a free and fair manner, without coercion, manipulation, or any other undue influence. For this reason, the voting process needs to be a secret ballot (Andrés et al. 2020). 

In an ideal liberal democracy, the election must be recurring as people needs and priorities change in every dynamic society. The election must also be competitive. Different political groups and individuals should be free to sell their policies and ideologies in an open and accessible manner to ensure a voter has all the information needed to make an informed decision that best suits his/her interest. 

The Constitution of Mauritius provides for all the mechanism of a fair electoral process. Every citizen above 18 is entitled to vote. The election is recurring every five years, and every party or individual has the right to offer himself or herself for election subject to the legal requirements. The judge, usually the electoral commission, needs to conduct the election fairly and impartially to ensure that the results reflect most voters’ will. The Electoral Commission was established after the constitutional amendments of 1958. It has presided over all the post-independent elections from 1967 to the recent one of 2019. 

According to the Constitution, the Electoral Boundaries Commission and Electoral Supervisory Commission are the two bodies charged with reviewing the administrative boundaries and conducting the elections. After consulting both the prime minister and the Opposition, the chairman and members of both commissions are appointed by the president. This is meant to ensure the electoral commission body’s neutrality and give it as much legitimacy as possible. 

The current new electoral system was introduced at the London conference of 1965. The electoral system was a major contentious issue. A commission was proposed to resolve the stalemate on representation. The commission proposed 20 constituencies, each having three representatives and Rodrigues Island having two representatives. Eight more corrective seats were created for minority representation. However, this was vehemently opposed by some big parties, such as the Mauritius Labour Party (MLP), as it was seen as an attempt to dilute their strong numerical strength. They argued that it was against the fundamental principle of one man, one vote representation. However, liberal democracy is meant to protect the majority and the minority and ensure their voice is heard and their interest is taken care of (Dubey, 1997). 

After further consultation and meditation, the corrective system was changed to the best loser system. Under this system, eight seats are allocated to the minority and underrepresented communities. On the other hand, the best loser system is outlined in the first schedule of the Constitution. It is a complicated and sometimes ambiguous system. Since the seats are allocated based on the best loser candidate from the under-represented communities, every candidate must declare his/her community identity. The definition of community identity is ambiguous, especially with intermarriage across different communities. It is also possible for a significant community member to misrepresent his identity and therefore get appointed to represent the minority while he/she is a considerable community member. This might defeat the whole purpose of the best loser system. It is a well-intended system, which helps the Mauritian political system adhere to the tenets of liberal democracy when it comes to allowing the voice of the minority to be heard. 

Democracy makes a government respond to the will and need of the people. It is the role of the people to monitor and hold the government responsible continuously. That is not practical if the people are not well organised (Stokes, 1999). Political parties collect people to be able to achieve this objective. Thus, political parties are essential, but they are not what a democracy is. They are central and necessary for a modern liberal democracy to thrive. 

Mauritius has had different political parties since the pre-independence era. MLP was the first organised political party In Mauritius. It was founded in 1936 by Dr Maurice Curé to represent the workers. The party was meant to be the workers’ voice, stand for their right and agitate for better working conditions. The party had broad support from diverse groups and communities. The party was also supported and worked closely with all labour and trade unions, organising strikes and go-slows to endue their demands were met. As a result of MLP activism activities, much progress has been realised in the labour sector, such as passing Labour Regulations, setting the minimum wage, and educating workers on their newly passed rights and freedoms (Selvon, 2012). 

Between 1947 to 1967, many other political parties were formed. The agitation for independence, expanded freedoms and rights, universal suffrage, and a new constitution contributed to developing the political space. Most parties derive their strength based on race, religion, and caste. Very few parties, if any, do not have an ethnic base. The Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) and MLP have unsuccessfully worked hard to portray themselves as cross-cultural parties (Dubey, 1997). 

Since Mauritius is diverse, no single political party is big enough to win most votes alone. Since independence, every election has been won by a coalition of at least two parties. Different parties from different alliances and partnerships during every election suit the day’s circumstances to maximise their odds. Since it is easy to register a political party, many political parties have been recorded, and once they outlive their usefulness, they go defunct. 

Currently, the major political parties are Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MSM), MLP, MMM, Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate (PMSD), Muvman Liberater (ML) and Mouvement Patriotique d’Alan Ganoo (MPA). The emergence of a robust middle class has led to new political non-ethnic political bases such as the professionals versus the business groups. However, ethnic affiliation outshines any other social demographic affiliation (Athal, 2014). 

The role of the Opposition is key to a thriving democracy. Still, we must also be cautious that non-objective Opposition driven by personal interest could hinder the government (Mutalib, 2000). In Mauritius, the Opposition leader is appointed by the president, mainly from the second majority party in the parliament. The Opposition’s primary purpose is to criticise the government constructively and present alternative policies to enrich the debate or dialogue on policymaking (Athal, 2014). Besides, both the prime minister and leader of the Opposition are appointed by the president and therefore bearing in mind their opposing roles, a perceived conflict of interest may exist. 

Democratic Institutions 

Democracy is as good as the quality of democratic institutions. A democracy cannot achieve its intended goals unless the democratic institutions are strengthened and their independence guaranteed (Gberevbie, 2014). Institutions are what implements a democracy. The Constitution of Mauritius has established various institutions which are meant to enhance and nurture democracy in Mauritius. The Constitution has also established multiple measures to protect these institutions from interference either by the political class or by other institutions that might undermine them and dilute their effectiveness. There are also measures to ensure that these institutions do not abuse their powers. Therefore, the Constitution guarantees checks and balances and that the ultimate authority rests with the people. Some of these institutions, like the electoral commission, have been discussed above. Others include: 

  • The Judiciary — It is one of the three arms of the government. Chapter 7 of the Constitution establishes the judiciary, its functions, structures, and independence safeguards mechanisms. The Supreme Court is the apex court with the powers to hear and determine all legal matter in the Republic. It is headed by a chief justice and a bench of senior judges. The president appoints the chief justice and the Senior puisne Judges. The judiciary was first made independent from the executive by the constitutional amendments of the year 1958. With the tenure of the chief justice also in the president’s hands, the judiciary’s strict independence from the executive is questioned. Independence of court is a necessity for any democracy to thrive. As the arbiter of disputes, the tribunal must be impartial and independent and be seen as so (Howard & Carey, 2004). Mauritius’s judiciary is widely perceived as separate in the community of commonwealth and has made several precedence setting judgments that have been adopted in other jurisdictions.
  • Parliament and the ExecutiveParliament is established by chapter 5 of the Constitution. The assembly is the representative of the people, a key component of liberal democracy. The parliament is made up of 62 elected members and eight appointed based on the best loser system. The parliament is headed by a speaker whom members select on the first sitting. Mauritius’s assembly dates back to 1825, when the Governor appointed the Council of Government to advise various governance issues. Following an agitation by planters, the first elected representatives were elected to the Council in 1885. In 1948, the Council of Government was replaced by the legislative Council, which for the first time had more elected members than those appointed. The legislative Council had powers to legislate and make laws, but the Governor had powers to veto any of their decision. In 1963, the Council became the Legislative Assembly, and later the parliament after the independence constitution of 1968. The executive is made of the president, the president, and ministers according to the Constitution. The parliament elects the president to serve for five years. The president then appoints the prime minister and his deputy, and the attorney general. The parliament and the executive are pretty intertwined. The executive originates from the parliament. The downside of this is that the independence of parliament is not guaranteed, and as such, the parliament might not be as effective in discharging its role of oversight. Simultaneously, the executive might not exercise its functions without political interference from the assembly from whom their power and authority are derived. The upside of it is that the people can indirectly hold the executive to account through their representatives. 
  • Civil society — It is the third sector of any democratic society. Although not entrenched in the Constitution, it is an informal sector that plays a vital role in nurturing democracy. Civil society organisations take many forms, such as Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative, international organisations, sports clubs, and socio-cultural organisations. Civil society has played a massive role in Mauritius’s democratic space, from the struggle for independence to the Republic’s setting up. As of 2013, over 9000 civil societies had been registered n Mauritius. They can be found in all sectors of the economy, politics, and different social spheres. Their roles range from enhancing democracy, human rights to poverty eradication and in some cases, they act as the liaison between the people and the government (Decancq et al. 2013). The government has attempted to regulate the sector, such as the national NGO policy paper in 2012 presented by the Ministry of Social Security. Other ministries and government departments have policies to control, collaborate, and promote civil societies within their jurisdictions. Overall, the sector continues to be a pivotal contributor to the liberal democratic space in Mauritius.

The Mauritian political system has evolved to reflect a modern liberal democracy in many aspects. This has helped society move past the dark era of slavery, colonisation and racial injustices. Relative to Mauritius’ African counterparts, the progress so far is quite commendable. However, relative to Mauritius’ upper-income counterparts, there is still more to be done. Human rights are well enshrined in the Constitution, but human right abuse issues such as police brutality and media suppression have been reported. Institutional independence is well put in theory, but the executive and the ruling party seem to hold power over other institutions such as a parliament in practice. Party democracy needs to be entrenched. Political parties are not ideological. They are just vehicles for ethnic mobilisation in pursuit of power. This has resulted in voters making their voting decisions based on ethnicity or race and not on policy issues and ideologies. Mauritius’s liberal democratic political system has done quite well in many aspects, but it still needs to progress on many fronts. 

By J. L. Athal (Krishna), PhD Candidate in Leadership

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