Francisco François has been confirmed as new leader of the Organisation du peuple de Rodrigues (OPR). His ascension over the grand old party brings to a close the era of Serge Clair who had run the party as a political juggernaut dominating the island’s destiny since 1982.
1) End of the succession strug
Over the weekend, the assembly of delegates of the Organisation du peuple de Rodrigues (OPR) voted in Francisco François as its new leader bringing to an end an ugly factional fight within the grand old party that had been raging for months about who would succeed the historic leader Serge Clair. “The internal dynamics of the OPR is such that different segments have their own champions within the leadership of the party,” explains Jean Marie Richard, a long-time observer of the politics of Rodrigues.
In many ways, the succession struggle that roiled the party was partly a problem of the OPR’s own making. Until the meeting of the assembly of delegates, the OPR was split between three currents. The first favoured Franchette Gaspard Pierre-Louis as Clair’s successor. How this came about was that ever since Clair first announced his intention to retire as leader in the run-up to the 2017 Rodrigues Regional Assembly (RRA) elections, it was unclear who would lead the OPR in the 2022 RRA elections. By the time the latter came around, François who had long been tipped to succeed Clair was a member of the Mauritian National Assembly (NA) and so could not quit to take part in the RRA elections without sparking off a by-election that would complicate matters for the national government.
The result was that the OPR picked Franchette Gaspard Pierre- Louis as its candidate for chief commissioner for the RRA, if it won the election. When it did not, Pierre-Louis became the minority leader in the RRA. Pierre-Louis had long risen through the ranks of the OPR; between 2006 and 2011, she had represented the party in the opposition benches of the RRA; then again in 2012 in power and as deputy chief commissioner after 2017. Now with the party pitching her as a potential chief commissioner heading the RRA, for some within the OPR, she looked like a good bet to succeed Clair. She had gathered around her newer, more technocratic and business-oriented members of the party.
The other current favoured Francisco François, long tipped to be the favourite in any succession fight. Like Pierre-Louis, François had come from a background long associated with the OPR, joining its youth wing in 1985. “He is part of the generation that was brought up on the old OPR ideology of Rodriguan autonomy which was its driving force,” says Richard. But unlike Pierre-Louis, François did not rise through fighting RRA elections. The manner of his rise allowed a more intimate view of the OPR’s political machine itself. In 2003, he became a senior advisor to Clair, who was then chief commissioner of the RRA. He became a member of the Mauritian NA in 2010 (as a best loser), then in 2014 and in 2019 while working throughout as a campaign manager for the party in both RRA and NA elections. This gave François an advantage unlike Pierre-Louis whose following was local and regional; his support base was much broader amongst old party loyalists. And unlike Pierre-Louis, François did not face allegations of corruption from the current regime in Port-Mathurin.
The third camp favoured doing what the OPR had always done until now: kick the can down the road and simply continue with Clair as party head to avoid an ugly factional fight. This camp did not go far, given that Clair himself stated he could not continue for health reasons, and was ultimately overruled for the same reason that François emerged as the ultimate winner of the OPR’s succession struggle: Clair himself had thrown his weight behind François. “He was always seen as Clair’s blue-eyed boy and when the assembly of delegates met, it’s not surprising that it was the influence of the old leader that prevailed,” says Richard.
2) Big shoes to fill
François’ rise is also a closing of the 47-year-long political career of Serge Clair who has long dominated both the OPR and Rodriguan politics. As the PMSD declined in Mauritius in the 1970s, its hold over Rodrigues too began to loosen and Clair was well-poised to prise the island from its political grip: he was a native Rodriguan, an ex-priest in a heavily Roman Catholic island, and a host of a radio broadcast by the MBC beamed directly to the island. “This gave Clair a definite advantage,” recalls historian Jocelyn Chan Low. During the 1970s, Clair took advantage of a contradiction baked into the PMSD’s politics in Rodrigues: stirring up resentment against Mauritian political domination while parachuting Mauritian candidates and civil servants into Rodrigues to run its administration and viewing the island as just another constituency to buoy the party’s political fortunes in Mauritius.
Clair’s OPR – a loosely-grouped think-tank that had morphed into a political party shortly before the 1976 election – first chipped away at the PMSD’s hold on Rodrigues in 1976 before wiping it out completely in 1982. His OPR would rule unchallenged until 1995 with the emergence of the Mouvement Rodriguais (MR) and except for a brief spell out of power in 2010 – and again in 2022 –, Clair’s OPR would dominate political life on the island. This was the first part of the Clair legend: transforming the politics of the island into an exclusively Rodriguan affair. And this would continue until 2019 when the PMSD wanted back in. “Clair had had a monopoly over the OPR for decades,” says Chan Low, “and this was based on the charisma of Serge Clair.” The second part of the Clair legend came in 2002 when the island formally became autonomous with the establishment of the RRA, patterned on the arrangement between Trinidad and Tobago. “Rodriguan autonomy itself has become identified with Clair himself and his OPR,” Chan Low adds. Clair, argues Richard, “will always be a reference point in Rodrigues; he has dominated the politics of a very small community for 47 years”.
3) The road ahead
Even though in the opposition, the OPR that François is inheriting is in an enviable position. “The problem in Rodriguan politics is fragmentation and splits because of the centralization of its parties,” says Chan Low. The small size of the Rodriguan electorate, the narrow margins of electoral victory and a febrile history of parties and individuals splitting and crossing the floor have all combined to create an unstable, and constantly changing, political spectrum in Port-Mathurin. The most recent victim of this tendency to fragment being Nicolas Von Mally’s MR – that had positioned itself as the key rival to the OPR since 1995. Ahead of the 2022 RRA election, the MR imploded with its breakaway party – the Union pour le peuple de Rodigues (UPR) – joining up in a grand alliance with other anti- OPR parties, including the PMSD which marked its return to Rodrigues in 2019, the FPR, MMR and MIR.
This last-minute stitch up of a grand alliance disloged the OPR from power in the RRA but only with an unprecedentedly slim 9-8 majority. This fragile five-party coalition, Richard explains, “came together only to kick the OPR out of power but since then has no figurehead or driving force for the alliance; this has led to frustrations developing within the alliance, playing into the hands of the OPR which remains a formidable party”. The OPR that François is taking over is still the largest single party on the island, winning the support of between 46 and 48 per cent of the Rodriguan electorate.
What this means is that, while the UPR-PMSD-FPR-MMR-MIR coalition currently running Rodrigues is eager to paint the OPR’s 2012-2022 stretch of power as a lost decade, and kickstart projects such as overhauling the country’s run-down and over-stretched water system (3 out of the island’s 4 desalination plants are not working properly), the OPR can afford to wait with little need to poach from other parties to return to power. For François, the priority would be preventing the recent succession struggle within the party from making the OPR itself succumb to a split and coming up with a new legacy for his own leadership of the party that goes beyond nostalgic gratitude for the Clair legacy of delivering autonomy for the island. “The priorities have changed, and the electorate has changed and leaders like François and Grandcourt in their late 40s have to come up with a different perspective,” argues Richard.
Whether this is coming up with a new vision for the island that a new generation of voters can buy into, such as deepening the autonomy of the island that currently resembles more a mere devolution of power from the central government without the RRA having powers of raising more of its own revenue or crafting policies on education or health and coming up with its own legislation. “Economically Rodrigues is still a closed shop with a static economy,” he adds. Everything from trade, shipping and flights still have to pass through the Mauritian mainland. Part of this would also mean moving away from the old legacy of the OPR being dominated by the figure of Serge Clair with which the party has been synonymous for 47 years. The biggest challenge for François may be within and changing the very nature of the OPR beas, according to Chan Low. “The best way to move forward now is for Francisco François to transition from a party centralized under one leader and turning it into a party that develops a collective leadership,” concludes Chan Low.