23 April 2010

Mauritius: Electoral Fever - The Contagion Spreads

Photo: L'Express
Elections générales 2010 : Jour de dépouillement. Les officiers transportant les urnes au No.19.

Port Louis — If this is the first election you are experiencing in Mauritius, you are in for a good time. The folklore is the same on each occasion and the election virus contaminates everyone. As a country, we boast one of the greatest general election turnout rates, excluding countries like Australia and Malta, for example, where voting is compulsory.

If you consider that in democracies like the US, UK and India, the number of people who vote remains at an average of 56.9% , 61.4% and 59% respectively, the 81.4 % turnout rate we registered in the last general elections is commendable. And it is showing no sign of decreasing! So do not expect such a large chunk of the population to remain silent and impassive until polling day. No, Sir! It will be divided mostly into two blocks, each standing for one of the major alliances. A tiny minority will vote for the small parties or independent candidates.

The virus starts spreading just before Nomination Day. Speculation about the probable alliances and potential candidates enlivens our lunch and dinner conversation for days prior to it. The noisy tradition of Nomination Day is part and parcel of the folklore. The candidates in each constituency will roll in accompanied by their supporters. The number of cars and supporters as well as the amount of noise made is meant to intimidate and convince those who are undecided that it is better for them to be with the winning party. So the supporters will all shout the same slogan, '3-0 pisso' (three-zero-walkover). Traditional musical instruments will add flavour to the already highly-flavoured atmosphere. Fire crackers will be used generously as a sign of an advance celebration. Counting one's chicken before they are hatched is the deliberate name of the game.

Journalists will be running around trying to get comments from the candidates, who are all serene, confident of an overwhelming majority and that their opponents will bite the dust. Some will go to the extent of saying that there are no opponents a way of destabilizing them.

The body language on the day is highly revealing: a diffident and nervous Ramjuttun in No. 5 who finds nothing better to do than try to talk to a confident Ramgoolam - who acts as if the former did not exist. A smiling Bérenger in No. 19 who shows some fake sympathy for a Réza Issack treading on unfamiliar ground. But the rules of the game should be observed - everyone will find his own way of saying the same thing: "We are heading for certain victory."

After the game of numbers, cars and noise, one should not forget the visual side: banners and flags displayed around the country. This year, we have been spared posters which have been forbidden by the Ministry of Tourism in an attempt to protect the environment. This, incidentally, has brought to an end the old tradition of 'kolers lafi s', very much a part of election folklore. The group, usually of young and not so- young party faithfuls, would 'cook' their glue out of fl our and water in someone's kitchen before spending the night sticking up the posters with the portraits of 'their' three candidates all over the constituency. Sometimes, they would cover up the posters of the opposing party...and often it would all end in a fight!

Today, the only visual signs are flags and banners. After Nomination Day, the blame game starts: the Opposition will blame the MBC for biased reporting and the government will blame a section of the press for the same thing. Newspapers all declare themselves as independent but the perception is that most of them support one alliance or the other. The blame game will end up at the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) and little will come out of it.

Parties will go to town with spending on food and drinks and the electors will have a field day taking full advantage of the treats. Once their stomachs are full, they will first complain about the quality of the free food and later decide whom to vote for. The alliance with less money will always blame the other for buying votes.

Nomination Day takes place at least two weeks before the elections but there is no hurry for an electoral manifesto. If a few intellectuals and mavericks will scream from the rooftops that they need to have a programme to be able to decide on which side to vote, the rest of the population will be busy analyzing the candidates according to the usual ethnic and communal criteria.

The various religious and socio- cultural organizations will join in the game. Some may voice out the views that their 'community' is under-represented. Others will negotiate with various alliances before telling their followers what stand to take.

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