Cassam Uteem: ‘‘I don’t recall ever witnessing such a political stranglehold on institutions’’

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When he accepts to give an interview, he does not pull his punches and no one is spared. Well, almost no one. He did say he would not pass any comment on former President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim’s saga after the publication of the commission of inquiry report. Apart from that, a no-holdsbarred interview with Former President of the Republic Cassam Uteem.

Last time we talked, both the government and the opposition were in a mess. Has the situation evolved in a positive way or has it worsened?
That’s five months back, if my memory serves me right, and as it has been rightly pointed out by a savvy political observer, one week is a long time in politics. It’s therefore not at all surprising that since, things have evolved, but surprisingly and in spite of the global crisis, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, and its ripples in Mauritius, the government has thus far come out of it less severely affected than could be expected, in public opinion.

In public opinion, not looking at the economic situation? Why?
Mainly because of the absence of a credible alternative, with an opposition in complete disarray, disunited and apparently unable to find its feet when the experienced political leaders that constitute the opposition should have realised that it is collectively and not in isolation that they represent a political force to reckon with and can be seen providing an alternative to the present government.

Yet, not so long ago, they presented a more or less united front. Who is responsible for the division this time around?
All those leaders who are unable to prevent their inflated egos from getting in the way of the obvious solution of a united front are guilty. The L’Entente de l’Espoir has lost one of its dynamic components that has decided to go off on his own. The Labour Party is still in the process of renewing its top-level leadership, mired in controversy, and is yet aspiring to be the opposition engine with its leader as the sole driver…

Wouldn’t you expect the party with the biggest vote bank and the biggest number of MPs in parliament to expect to be the engine of any coalition, irrespective of any frustrations among those who were not satisfied with what they got?
I would have expected, in his public pronouncement, a modicum of humility from the leader of a party, albeit with a larger following if we go by the result of the last general election, but who has nonetheless lost two successive elections and knows that it’s well-nigh impossible for him to accede to the post of prime minister again without his party striking an alliance with other opposition parties. It serves no purpose to flex one’s muscle and in the process humiliate a would be partner, does it? An experienced politician like the leader of the Labour Party should have known that the reaction to such bragging would be both immediate and negative.

If you were asked to be the referee in this battle for the division of tickets, what would your advice be?
If it were only a question of tickets, they would not look up to me as the referee…And, if they don’t pull together quick enough to make it happen, they might as well start preparing themselves to be in the lurch for the next five to 10 years and that too assuming that their faithful supporters would be prepared to accompany them in the karo kann. I personally doubt whether, at the crucial moment, the latter would be able to resist the temptation of jumping on the winning band wagon. A divided opposition – parliamentary and non-parliamentary – would be manna from heaven for the MSM and its allies as it would ensure, without a shadow of a doubt, their return at the next general election and a crushing defeat for the opposition parties, moving in a disorganised array and competing amongst themselves.

What about the option that Nando Bodha could be a good prime minister candidate, as MMM leader Paul Bérenger said in an interview on Top FM recently? Last time we talked, you were of the opinion that Bodha was not able to assert himself as prime minister material. Has your opinion changed or is it still the same?
What I remember telling you, in our last interview, is that Nando Bodha has joined l’Entente de l’Espoir and revealed his ambition, based on his proven track record, to be the country’s prime minister, which I thought was quite understandable if not legitimate. My opinion has not changed. However, there are a lot of distances for him to travel before he can reach his destination. I heard Paul Bérenger say on TOP FM Radio that Nando Bodha is aptly qualified to be a good prime minister. I won’t challenge this statement. But in such matters, I tend to be cautious. Nando Bodha may have both credentials and experience but, as goes the saying, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

If Bodha were to be presented as prime minister by L’Espoir, his party will have to be given half the investitures. What sense does that make for such a puny party?
I think you are trying to read too much into what Paul Bérenger said. I am sorry to have to say it, and I am sure my friend Nando would understand, but Paul Bérenger’s statement in that particular interview, is a direct response to Navin Ramgoolam’s tactless remark we just referred to. Nothing more.

If it were more than just a jab at Navin Ramgoolam, do you think the PMSD would go along with that arrangement? I can see no arrangement.
To me, it’s a mere hypothesis.

On the government side on the other hand, all is well: the nominations of cronies continue unabashed, the laws in parliament giving the prime minister more powers continue to be voted, and the contracts are given out with little transparency. The latest case is at the CWA where its newly appointed chairman is looking for ways to circumvent established procedure apparently to speed things up. What is your reaction to that?
These are all the doings of a government that firmly believes its parliamentary majority gives it the right to manage the affairs of the state the way it wants without being answerable to anybody. It can afford to flout all principles of fairness and justice and ignore public opinion and even public outcry. We have witnessed how, during the period of confinement, emergency procurements have allowed for the importation of specialised medical equipment and drugs at inflated cost and through shady figures. Although such scheming, at the expense of the public coffers, has been widely decried, it is now being suggested that the CWA will have recourse to the same shocking and reprehensible methods to speed up matters. Could we at last expect a 24/7 islandwide supply of domestic water? The present regime has reduced parliament to a party machinery, a mere executor of the Executive, thus violating the sacrosanct doctrine of the separation of powers that characterises a democracy.

And the prime minister now has even more powers, doesn’t he?
Yes! Already the powers of the prime minister as enshrined in our constitution make of him nothing less than a ruling monarch and yet he never hesitates to legislate to attribute to himself more powers, as if to confirm the saying that the further you go, the more ambitious you become. In the process, he is moving the country closer to an autocracy! The blatant promotion of cronyism, as never before, to the detriment of meritocracy, is also responsible for the growing tendency of the brain drain the country is experiencing especially among the younger generation.

It’s not only power but also using it. Many political observers highlight the fact that the prime minister today controls practically all the institutions in the country, from the police to the Electoral Supervisory Commission with an unprecedented hold on the MBC. Have we ever been in a similar situation?
The control of all the institutions of the country, as it is being currently done, is a perversion of our democracy and a serious source of the increased dysfunction of these institutions leading to the loss of public trust in them. I don’t recall ever witnessing such a political stranglehold on the country’s fundamental institutions that often act unlawfully and with impunity to satisfy the powers that be, to the detriment of the public good. The dysfunction of these institutions, due to political interference from the highest quarters, constitutes, from my point of view, the supreme curse the country has been facing since the installation of this regime. We no longer feel safe and protected, living under constant scrutiny and being spied upon with cameras under our windows. We can be any time ‘under the PM’s or the police radar’. The information we are fed with in the official media is distorted and often faked.

The control of institutions also creates the fear that we may be moving away from free and fair elections as we knew them. You must have heard the former prime minister, Navin Ramgoolam, saying we should invite political observers from overseas for the next ballot. We already have observers who always give us a clean sheet. What will more of them change?
I have, since I left office as president, personally headed quite a number of Election Observer Missions, mainly in Asian and African countries, on the invitation of prestigious organisations like the African Union Commission, the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Carter Center. I can confidently affirm that such missions play a very important supportive role in increasing public confidence in the electoral process of those countries and in enhancing its credibility, while minimising the risk of violence and deterring electoral fraud. A successful Election Observer Mission is one which provides a faithfully neutral assessment of the elections and whose report, findings and recommendations, serve as a basis for reforms in the post-election phase, wherever reforms are needed. Neutral assessment is not subjective assessment but rather one whose methodology and observation are based on benchmarks set out in well designed and well researched universally accepted documents.

But there were Electoral Observer Missions at the last election, which didn’t prevent allegations of irregularities followed by electoral petitions, did it?
In view of the confusion, deliberate and otherwise, that surrounded the whole electoral process during the last election, Navin Ramgoolam’s request is quite legitimate and the presence of election observers could, I believe, contribute to enhance confidence in the administration of the election. l

What about the suggestion of counting votes the same day?
I have never observed elections where counting doesn’t start on the same day and the results affixed, in general, a couple of hours later. It happens in the remotest of places, in villages hundreds of kilometres away from the main cities.

In what way will it help? Ballots still have to be transported to counting centres anyway, and there is many aslip‹twixt the cup and the lips, or rather ‘twixt the voting centre and the counting centre’, isn’t there?
There is no need, if it is so decided, to transport the ballots in what you call counting centres. The counting can be done in each polling station in the presence of representatives of political parties and candidates, at the close of voting. After the verification and reconciliation are done, the result is communicated by the presiding officer to the Electoral Commission’s Office or a regional office designated by the electoral commissioner. The latter totals the results transmitted by all the polling stations of the constituency and the final election results are officially declared by the returning officer of the said constituency.

Would electronic voting help or could it make things worse?
I am of two minds on this issue. The electronic voting system refers to a computer-based voting station with which citizens interact directly to cast their ballots. I have read as many pros as cons regarding the system. Those in favour contend that, in the United States, for example, where the system exists, there is no evidence that any electronic voting machine used in the elections has been tampered with or even that any attempt has been made to perform such tampering. Those against strongly advance that paperless electronic voting machines would result in a system where we have no idea whether our leaders are elected by voters or by errors or malicious software in voting machines. I am rather sceptical. And since it is said that ‘if you doubt, don’t’, I’d opt for the paper ballot to cast my vote.

What then should be done to avoid the perception that elections are not likely to be free and fair?
Let me make it very clear that elections in Mauritius are not rigged in the way it happens in some infamous countries. The Electoral Commission Office has always been seen as a bulwark against any fraudulent attempt to compromise the voting system. Mr Irfan Raman, the electoral commissioner, besides being an efficient and conscientious officer with a wide experience in electioneering both in Mauritius and internationally, is a respected person of high moral rectitude. The Electoral Supervisory Commission (ESC) under the chairmanship of Mr Yousouf Aboobaker has always been seen as acting to preserve the integrity of the electoral process. However, the appointment lately to the ESC of persons closely associated with the prime minister has left people questioning and doubting the independence of the institution.

If everything was done so well during the last election, how come there were ballot papers walking around in nature and counting didn’t tally at least in no 19?
The discrepancies revealed during the recounting of ballots of constituency no 19 are to be attributed to the incompetence, negligence and lack of professionalism of the officers concerned which unfortunately reflected poorly on the Electoral Commission.

So what should be done to ensure that elections are really free and fair?
First, the Representation of the Peoples’ Act needs to be amended to give additional powers to the Electoral Commissioner and the ESC…

You mean to the political nominees who are close to the prime minister?
It is of course understood that for an ESC to be given such additional powers, it would have to be properly constituted and made up of respected individuals of proven integrity, with no political affiliation and connections. Secondly, a level playing field among all the candidates and the political parties partaking in an election in terms of financing political campaigns, media coverage especially by the MBC TV of candidates’ and political parties’ activities has to be ensured. Thirdly, the dates of the elections should be decided by the Electoral Commission and not by the prime minister, as the case is now, giving an undue advantage to the latter’s political party/alliance. Fourthly, a pool of properly trained electoral officers should be set up to work in the various polling stations and in various capacities, before, during and election day. All of them have to be answerable to the electoral commissioner, who is or should be of the status of a Senior Puisne Judge. These would be some of the measures taken to ensure ‘freer and fairer’ elections in Mauritius.

What do you think the opposition should do if they are to have a fighting chance against the government?
Go out there and prove to the people why they should be trusted. Take the solemn pledge that they would serve them to the best of their ability, that they would run the country differently, restoring democracy and total independence and autonomy to the institutions, promote meritocracy in the public and private sectors, that fraud and corruption will be banned, that drug traffickers will be mercilessly hunted, that their socio economic programme will aim at eradicating poverty through adequate family revenues, inclusive education and decent housing, within a reasonable delay.

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