Extra-parliamentary parties: are they a threat to the government or the mainstream opposition?

15 mai 2023, 21:00


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Extra-parliamentary parties: are they a threat to the government or the mainstream opposition?

The LPM has once again called for unity amongst extra-parliamentary parties. With Nando Bodha’s RM joining up with the group, they are now looking to woo Roshi Bhadain and his Reform Party. At the same time, Bruneau Laurette has joined Sherry Singh’s One Moris. This proliferation of new parties ahead of an election is nothing new. But the question is: are they a bigger problem for the government or for the parliamentary opposition?

1) The call of small factions

At the start of the month, Nando Bodha announced that his party Rassemblemnt Mauricien (RM) would be joining up with the LPM,that groups together Rama Valayden and Dev Sunnasy’s 100% Citoyen. Using the platform, both Valayden and Bodha appealed to Roshi Bhadain to bring his Reform Party into the grouping of extra-parliamentary opposition parties. On the other hand, two other extra-parliamentary groups also announced their coming together: Bruneau Laurette joined up Sherry Singh’s newly founded One Moris. With these small parties coming – and then going – through various combinations, the question that arises is whether they are a bigger threat to the government or to the parliamentary opposition parties – Labour, MMM and PMSD – themselves? 

This, Lindsey Collen of Lalit argues, is the paradox at the heart of these small parties: “Their aim is to oppose and weaken the government politically, but their effect is the opposite; they harm the opposition electorally.” As far as the government is concerned, Jocelyn Chan Low, historian and former academic at the University of Mauritius, says that “they can threaten the government by bringing up things like Wakashio or the Kistnen case and can probably hope to get a protest vote, but they cannot overthrow the government. They have a nuisance value”. With economic problems and threats of democratic backsliding, democracy scholar Dr. Sheila Bunwaree says, “at this juncture there is a need for a plurality of voices that need to be heard and these can have an important effect on voter psychology”. 

The LPM has appealed to Roshi Bhadain to join it, in yet another realignment of these small parties.

Although the sheer quantity of extra-parliamentary parties cropping up may seem overwhelming and something new, when it comes to Mauritian political history, it’s not. The very first national election held after independence – in 1976 – saw much the same efflorescence of parties; some offshoots of opposition parties, others founded by disgruntled people leaving government. Alongside Labour, the PMSD and the MMM was a whole galaxy of other parties such as the UDM – led first by Maurice Lesage and then by Guy Ollivry – which broke from the PMSD; the MMMSP of Dev Virahsawmy, which broke from the MMM; the older IFB of Sookdeo Bissoondoyal and the PSP of Ouma Hawoldar, that broke from Labour just ahead of the 1976 elections. 

And just like today’s extra-parliamentary parties, back then too, these smaller parties struggled to come to some sort of arrangement amongst themselves. One example: the UDM’s Ollivry telling his supporters to vote for Bissoondoyal’s IFB in constituencies where the UDM was not there because, as Ollivry put it, both parties “were on the same wavelength”. The electoral commissioner’s office at the time noted that just ahead of the 1976 election, the number of registered parties in the country had bloomed from just 10 in the 1967 election to 31 by 1976. In the end, none of these parties ended up winning power and by the time the 1970s drew to a close, many of them such as the UDM, the MMMSP, IFB, Republican Centre or Parti du Sud had ceased being serious political contenders. But the mushrooming of small, extra-parliamentary parties in the 1970s is different from today in one very significant way: back then the emergence of such parties was a pan-Mauritian phenomenon, emerging in both urban and rural constituencies and threatening major government and opposition parties alike. Dev Virahsawmy of the MMMSP could get 1,642 votes in N°5, Sookdeo Bissoondoyal of the IFB could get 3,993 votes in nº11, or the PSP’s Hawoldar 3,319 votes in no9.

The trouble is that most of these small parties are based in ridings where it is the opposition parties, and not the government, that is strong.

2) The urban phenomenon

Today’s extra-parliamentary parties, by contrast, are a more restricted phenomenon, limited to urban constituencies. In the 2019 elections, Dev Sunnasy stood in Rose-Hill, Rama Valayden too has traditionally favoured this constituency, and Bhadain stood in Beau-Bassin. All three have stood in constituencies dominated not by the ruling MSM party led by Prime Minister, Pravind Jugnauth, but rather by the MMM, led by Paul Bérenger. Looking further, Jean Claude Barbier stood in no1, another constituency traditionally contested by the MMM and the PMSD. And although Bruneau Laurette is an as-yet electorally untested quantity, his predominantly urban-based following presages a similar thrust in primarily urban constituencies. 

This concentration on urban ridings means that although it may seem that political choices are proliferating, they are doing so not at the expense of the MSM – whose strength predominantly springs from rural ridings – nor its key rival the Labour Party (another rural behemoth), but rather at that of opposition parties such as the MMM and the PMSD. The MMM started out as a strong national party, but after the 1983 election increasingly became reduced to the towns and the PMSD from its inception has been an urban phenomenon. “These new parties in no way pose an electoral threat in the countryside,” says Collen. There are multiple reasons why these parties are basically urban in orientation: the first is rising anger within urban middle classes, which in recent decades have seen businesses such as workshops, tailors, shoemakers and upholstery outfits start shrivelling in towns. In 2020, Laurette’s supporters were quick to explain how a middle class feeling ignored (too rich for government assistance and too poor to simply ride out economic crises) fuelled their strength. 

The second is that such small parties tend to be one-man shows; the party is only strong where its leader is strongest. And in 2019, with the exception of Sudesh Rughoobur’s RSM that took 4,849 votes in no6, all of these leaders of extra-parliamentary opposition groups are primarily urban leaders with no following in the countryside. The third reason is the weakening of the MMM and the PMSD – and traditional parties as a whole – that has opened up space for such parties to emerge. “It’s not just urbanrural anymore, there is also a generational divide,” argues Chan Low, “people don’t just rely on the MBC anymore; now there is also social media, and today more than half of Mauritians say that they no longer follow traditional parties. There are no die-hards anymore; it’s a much more complex situation today.”

The LPM recently saw Bodha joining it.

3) The underlying threat

Fearing vote diversion to small extraparliamentary parties, larger mainstream political parties have traditionally reacted by co-opting such organizations into a broader alliance. But the difficulty the mainstream opposition is having in coming to an accommodation with these extra-parliamentary parties is some indication of the sense of threat they feel from them. 

Take Bruneau Laurette as an example. He emerged in 2020 and after a brief flirtation with the traditional opposition parties, by March 2021, he was declaring that his avowed goal was to wean away the electorate of the MMM and the PMSD, sparking tensions with the MMM. “The opposition just cannot accept these parties in an alliance without themselves feeling threatened,” explains Collen. And these extraparliamentary parties have themselves come to be seen less as assets for the opposition parties and more as tools to use to force some form of accommodation amongst themselves. Bhadain and Bodha are an example of this: the former broke with the MSM in 2017, then attempted to reach an accommodation with the Labour Party ahead of the 2019 election before joining up with Valayden in the self-styled ‘Avengers’ and then along with Bodha joining the MMM-PMSD in a grouping. As soon as the MMM began a rapprochement with the Labour Party, both Bodha and Bhadain were out of any such arrangement. Also frozen were Labour’s approaches towards Laurette. An accommodation with such parties is resisted because it can only come at the expense of a larger opposition party. “This is problematic for the opposition, it is looking to unite but it can become more fractured, and this is not the time for that,” says Bunwaree, “these parties need strong programmes, not a split that would favour the government of the day. A lot will depend on what the opposition parties do.”

Then there is another problem; far from being new many of these extra-parliamentary parties are either old themselves or merely offshoots of the very traditional parties they claim to be fighting. Jean Claude Barbier – currently in the LPM – has been a long time MMM member and MP in 2005, 2010 and 2014, before breaking with that party to join Alan Ganoo’s MP, before breaking with him too ahead of the 2019 election over whether to join Labour or the MSM in an alliance: Ganoo picked the MSM while Barbier unsuccessfully stood as part of the Labour-PMSD alliance before eventually finding himself within the LPM. 

Bhadain was seen a rising star within the MSM as financial services minister before quitting that party and founding his own as was Sherry Singh, who was seen as a former MSM insider as ex-CEO of Mauritius Telecom. Even older are Valayden and Bodha. Valayden was formerly with the PMSD and left to found the MR in 1996. His party was part of an alliance including the MMM and the MSM in 2000, and then switched to backing a Labour-led alliance in 2005 becoming Attorney General until 2009 before once again unsuccessfully standing as a Labour candidate in 2010. He broke with the party after the 2019 election, before co-founding the ‘Avengers’ group around the Kistnen case and is now in the LPM. Bodha had been in the MSM since 1986 before he himself broke with the party to found the RM, which has also entered the LPM. “These are all old elephants who have come from the traditional parties themselves,” Chan Low points out, “you cannot just recycle people and claim to be something new.”. These long histories further complicate any accommodation with the bigger opposition parties. 

The lesson 

But the problem is not just from the bigger opposition parties. In many ways, there is also a deep-seated confusion baked into the politics of these extra-parliamentary parties themselves. Are they truly ‘civil society’ alternatives to traditional politics or simply smaller parties looking for a deal? Two parties stand out in this regard. The first is Rezistans ek Alternativ (ReA). For years it has concentrated its politics on doing away with the need to declare a community on election nomination papers. Aside from the lack of legal success in the courts, it has also put ReA itself into a problem: it cannot contest elections without compromising on its one consistent struggle. The result is ReA constantly approaching larger opposition parties, such as Labour, in the hope that they can deliver on its political goals such the declaration of community on election papers, as part of a political accommodation. Or take Laurette who has bled supporters each time he transitioned from an apolitical civil society grouping into a political party; then again when he tried to position himself close to the traditional opposition; then when his drug case started and then again when he became close to Singh’s One Moris.

“The smaller parties cannot make up their minds whether they are political parties or civil society, then get into trouble with their own followers when they get too close to the traditional opposition parties,” says Collen, “they cannot be co-opted by the opposition not just because the MMM and the PMSD feel threatened but also because the smaller parties just cannot make up their minds whether they are proper political parties or not.” Seeing alternatives spring up in their urban strongholds but unable to properly co-opt and digest them, the larger opposition parties see these newer parties more as a problem than an opportunity. 

For them the threat is not being displaced by these extra-parliamentary parties, they either have a long track record of accumulating small electoral scores or are untested at the hustings. The problem for the larger opposition is these parties bleeding support away from them. And here too there is a history. Shortly after the riots in 1999, one of the MMM’s own MPs – Jocelyn Minerve – quit her seat in the MMM bastion of no20. With a by-election announced, the MMM fielded Francoise Labelle, a fresh face who had previously been part of the Common Front against the inclusion of oriental languages for ranking at the CPE. Standing against the MMM was the Labour-PMXD bloc who was fielding Xavier-Luc Duval. When the poll was completed, it was a disaster for the MMM, it had lost a seat in what it had considered a safe constituency. The MMM itself blamed both Valayden and Minerve (now heading the party Nouvo Lizour) who had also stood in the election, getting 1,532 and 707 votes respectively. Enough in the MMM’s view to lead to the defeat of its own candidate and the victory of Duval.