Politics: The multiple crises of the MMM

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The MMM has seen its electoral fortunes steadily declining.

The MMM has seen its electoral fortunes steadily declining.

The MMM is once again in the limelight for the wrong reasons. This time over in-fighting between Aadil Ameer Meea and Joanna Bérenger over the latter’s promotion of people from the party’s youth wing in coordinating with other opposition parties. The episode has once again raised the issue of succession after Paul Bérenger exits. However, the roots of the MMM’s malaise go much deeper than that.

  1. The problems of the 1980s

The current party in-fighting has once again shed a spotlight on the looming – but as yet unanswered – succession problem within the MMM. What happens to the party after the exit of its long-time leader Paul Bérenger? While the succession question is one of the more pressing crises the party is currently going through, it’s far from being the only one.

The roots of the multiple crises plaguing the MMM can be traced back to the party’s reinvention of itself back in the 1980s. The first was the party eschewing its left-wing radicalism of the 1970s and, starting in 1980, adopting a more conciliatory new social consensus strategy, which became official in March 1982. “The MMM just abandoned its own previous notions of class struggle and turned towards social democracy and the notion of the new social consensus was part of that,” says Ram Seegobin of Lalit, whose own party broke from the MMM in the early 1980s.

 The second was that in 1981, despite becoming the largest party in parliament after the 1976 elections, as it headed to the polls in 1982, it entered into an electoral alliance with a breakaway faction of the Labour Party led by Harish Boodhoo – the PSM to which the MMM gave 18 tickets. The MMM justified such generosity by stating that the alliance was necessary to “reassure the Hindu community”. Another such reassurance was the fielding of Sir Anerood Jugnauth as the party’s candidate for prime minister. The idea was to prevent a repeat of what had happened in 1976 when the Labour Party led by Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam managed to keep the much stronger MMM from power by raising the bogey of communism and cobbling a razorthin majority with the PMSD.

The party has centred around the political legacy of its leader, Paul Bérenger, leaving open the question of succession.

This strategy, however, had a disastrous result on the MMM’s future. The need to ally with an overtly Hindu rural party led the MMM to unconsciously project itself as a party of the urban minorities – something that the Labour Party had long accused it of being – just a rehash of the old PMSD bloc under a new leadership to try to avenge the defeat of 1967. “There was a communal logic to that alliance with the PSM whereas previously the MMM had always insisted that it represented all working people. That became a slippery slope which the party has never been able to come back from,” argues Seegobin.

The fruit of these decisions soon became apparent in 1983 when the MMM itself fell apart, splitting into a predominantly Hindu MSM led by Sir Anerood Jugnauth backed by the PSM; and the MMM led by Paul Bérenger being electorally eviscerated in the countryside, effectively reducing it from a national, to an urban party. Till now, the MMM’s fortunes in rural constituencies have only plummeted further.

  1. The paradox in the party’s politics

The second crisis that has dimmed the MMM’s fortunes is the paradox baked into the party’s contemporary politics. Unlike the MSM or the Labour Party, which more realistically have banked their electoral success on appealing to older voters and pensioners in an ageing Mauritius, the MMM has insisted on appealing to younger voters. In part, this is a result of the party’s self-image as the party of the young dating back to the 1970s. The problem, however, is that while it projects itself as a party of the young, its contemporary appeal is as a party of nostalgia, constantly looking back to its more radical past.

Young voters were not born during the halcyon days of struggle in the 1970s and the older voters that do remember it are fast slipping away. “It has nothing to offer the young,” says historian Jocelyn Chan Low, “and its older supporters keep shrinking with each election.” The result? With each passing election, the MMM just keeps getting weaker and has lost its previous political domination of even urban constituencies such as Port Louis since 2005. In effect, the only constituencies still considered ‘safe’ for the MMM are Rose Hill and Beau Bassin. The appeal of the MMM has not broadened; it has only shrunk with each passing year into a terminal spiral. Not surprisingly, since 2005 the MMM has been relegated into the wilderness of the opposition benches.

This springs from another problem: since moving away from its radicalism in the 1980s, the MMM stopped relying on idealistic cadres and a strong presence in the trade unions for its political muscle. Instead, its shift to the political centre has led the party to increasingly rely on technocrats and professionals as its candidates. “The type of people in the party has changed. These are just people looking to win elections and tend to be more worried about getting a ticket or a ministerial job,” says Chan Low. Two consequences have flown from this: firstly, the party simply abandoned the unions and allowed its influence there to atrophy. “It used to have great roots in the unions,” says Chan Low. After all, unions allied with the MMM were castigated by the Labour Party for bringing the country to its knees in the 1970s and was a powerful political weapon wielded by the MMM. “That is gone now,” he adds. The second is that with each electoral defeat, the MMM merely haemorrhages even more of its members looking for greener pastures elsewhere. For the MMM, the latter are usually dismissed as political opportunism, with the government luring its members away with tall promises and what the MMM describes as “money politics”.

A lot of the party’s appeal rests on nostalgia for its halcyon days in the 1970s.

There is a problem with this complacency; firstly, such opportunism only occurs in parties that are in decline – it stops at describing the symptom, not the cause. The other is that such opportunism is hardly new; it has always been there since 1968. Between that year and 1976, no less than 28 parliamentarians crossed the floor (15 to the Labour Party led by SSR in exchange for ministries and PPS posts); and between 1976 and 1982, 18 parliamentarians did so (9 to the ruling Labour Par ty). Nevertheless, despite such opportunism, the MMM only went from strength to strength, becoming the largest party in parliament in 1976 and electorally annihilating its rivals in the historic 60-0 verdict of 1982. Something else must be very wrong with the MMM today, not just “money politics”.

‘’Being so dependent on coalitions has also changed the way in which the MMM periodically splits itself apart.“

  1. The weak hand

The MMM constantly looking to ally itself with predominantly Hindu parties coupled with its shrinking electoral fortunes has left it even more dependent on coalitions to get to power. A far cry from 1976 or 1982. “Except for the 1983 election, the MMM has always looked for an alliance with a communal logic,” Seegobin says, “one of the criticisms we have had is that tying yourself down with coalitions makes you weaker because you cannot mobilize and the party machine itself goes into paralysis because it constantly follows alliance negotiations.” This dependence was only further underscored by the electoral disaster the party faced when it went on its own for the 2019 polls.

This has had two results: on the one hand, its shrinking electoral strength means that even when it comes to causes that the party still espouses, its increasingly junior status in coalitions means that it is not able to get those done. Take electoral reform for example: alliances with the Labour Party and the MSM (the supporters of these parties are unenthusiastic about electoral reform because a dose of proportional representation is interpreted as weakening the political dominance of these parties when they are in power) have either led to stonewalling and mere lip service or proposals that are a far cry from what the MMM has in mind. As the most recent reform proposed by the MSM was. Or the Chagos which the MMM championed with street protests in the 1970s.

Here too, a shrinking MMM is increasingly being outshone by Labour and the MSM, both of whom now compete for credit in championing the cause. This inability of a weakening MMM to secure significant political concessions for its own base has opened up space that others have looked to fill; whether it was Rama Valayden’s MR in the late 1990s, Jocelyn Gregoire or, until most recently, Bruneau Laurette. This space has also allowed others such as the PMSD to propose rolling back whatever the MMM has achieved in its brief stints in power such as the abolition of communal categories in the 1982 census.

On the other hand, being so dependent on coalitions has also changed the way in which the MMM periodically splits itself apart. After 1982, most splits within the MMM have been over whether or not to stay within a ruling coalition. For example, in 1983, when the party split itself over whether to stay with Sir Anerood Jugnauth as prime minister or follow Bérenger into the opposition. Or in 1993, when the MMM split again between what would eventually become the RMM choosing to stay in government with the MSM, or follow Bérenger into the opposition alongside the Labour Party.

Since 1983, the MMM has been primarily restricted to being an urban party.

But now with the MMM relying not on its own strength, but securing a favourable coalition deal to preserve its political strength, these splits are now taking place – not when the party is in power – but ahead of elections, and solely over which other party to enter into an alliance with. As in 2014, when Ivan Collendavelloo left to found the ML to ally with the MSM. Or after that, when a number of other party heavyweights left to join the MSM – either joining the MSM outright, or founding smaller outfits such as the Platforme Militante of the Mouvement Alan Ganoo to ally with the MSM – for the 2019 polls. “This has happened more and more and the big problem with just a debate about deciding between Labour and the MSM is that there is no real solution for that except going through another split in the party, weakening it further,” warns Seegobin.

  1. The succession problem

Then there is the other looming crisis – of who will succeed 75-year old Bérenger. Here the question is much more complicated than it is for, say, the MSM. “For the MSM the question is easy. The Sun Trust does not belong to the MSM, it belongs to the Jugnauth family. It’s a party based on a private family trust,” says Seegobin. With the purse strings firmly in the hands of the Jugnauth family, there is no question of the party going into other hands.

For the MMM, the question is not so simple. The history of splits and Bérenger’s longevity mean that the party has almost become synonymous with the political clout of its leader. “This is a big factor,” explains Chan Low, “Bérenger has been in politics since the 1970s. Now it’s 2022. Things have changed, but the MMM has not adapted, everything still centres around Bérenger.” With no clear successor, most of its heavyweights having moved out of the party, that complicates matters. “Who inherits the political goodwill that Bérenger has created since the 1970s? This cannot just be transferred and if you try to foist a successor on the party, that makes another split inevitable.” cautions Seegobin. At one time, Steven Obeegadoo saw himself as a potential successor. But with Obeegadoo now out of the party and Joanna Bérenger’s rising, these tensions are evident. As we see in the clash between her and Aadil Ameer Meea over members of the party’s youth wing led by Joanna Bérenger taking on a more visible role within the party. “Of course, there will be clashes,” says Chan Low.

Faced with these multiple crises, what does the future of the MMM look like? It’s hard to see the party disappear as completely as the Independent Forward Bloc (IFB) led by Sookdeo Bissoondoyal did. The IFB contested the 1967 election with the Labour Party and the CAM before breaking with them in 1969 and Bissoondoyal serving as leader of the opposition between 1971 and 1976. At the 1976 election, the IFB failed to win a single seat and the party soon disappeared. Rather the decline of the MMM resembles that of the PMSD led by Gaetan Duval. The PMSD’s decline too was marked by multiple splits: the splitting off of the UDM led by Guy Ollivry in 1969 and then splitting between the PMXD and PGD and then a rump PMSD throughout the 1990s. All throughout the PMSD relying on coalitions to stay relevant: first with Labour, then looking for an accommodation with the MMM, then turning to the MSM before relying on coalitions with Labour again.

In fact, the diminishing electoral fortunes of both parties also bear an eerie resemblance: the PMSD went from having 44 per cent of the country’s vote in its high point in 1967 before shrinking to a mere 16 per cent by 1976. Similarly, the MMM has shrunk from 48 per cent in 1982 to a mere 20 per cent in 2019. “The MMM today is once again cornered, it has no choice but to turn either to Labour or the MSM,” says Chan Low. Unable to break away from this vicious cycle – and thus far being unable to reinvent itself – the MMM seems as Seegobin says, “as the PMSD has survived, so will the MMM. It will continue to be there, just increasingly smaller and less relevant with time”.

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