Seychelles - 115 islands in the western Indian Ocean - is gearing up for its presidential and legislative elections October 22-24.
SNA is talking to the island nation's political leaders and presidential candidates about their campaigns, their plans as well as their take on pertinent issues in the country.
Wavel Ramkalawan, a seasoned politician and opposition leader, says his stubbornness is leading him to make another bid for the presidency.
SNA: After having failed five times as a candidate for president, why did you present yourself as a candidate again? Wasn't it time to let someone else take over?
WR: I like that you have asked this question as some people say that I am stubborn and I think that I am the only man for the job. That is not the case at all. In 1998, I stood as a presidential candidate and a candidate for the National Assembly, which at the time was allowed. I did this because our party was still small and I knew that I didn't stand a chance to win the presidential election. However, I knew that I would win for the National Assembly election in St Louis.
One of the reasons why I have presented my presidential candidacy this many times is because there wasn't anyone else to stand. I get asked this question a lot as to why I do not give the chance to someone else. It needs to be understood that LDS as a party went through a procedure, inviting all member to suggest their names as candidates but when the time came, I was the only one who submitted my name.
During the last election, I lost by 193 votes. In another country, there wouldn't have been peace in the country, but this is not something that I believe in. I believe that the stability of the country comes first. People who know me know that I am the same man I was. I have reached great heights and my position has never had an influence on me. We need to think about the presidency as a position in which the population places you to serve them, not to impose your authority.
Yes, I am standing as a candidate again but I believe in what I have always stood for. Many of the things that I stand for have materialised in the country and hence I am happy to have made a contribution to the development of the country.
SNA: Will you stand again should you lose this election?
WR: No, I think that there always comes a time when someone has to retire. I'm now 59 years old and will be close to 65 in five years. It has been a life dedicated entirely to the people of Seychelles. I became a priest at the age of 23, and I didn't have a window where I did nothing. As a priest, my life was entirely dedicated to my congregation and the people.
Politic has also been a very interesting journey. There are many things that I have always wanted to do but didn't have the chance to because of my obligations. I had to make a lot of sacrifices, especially my relationship with my family. However, whatever happens in the future, it needs to be clear that I will be here to encourage the younger generation to engage themselves in politics and the future of their country. I will be here to mentor those who want to go in that direction.
SNA: Do you feel that other candidates are seeing you as the main competition?
WR: Yes, this is the observation that I have made, that I am the main target for other candidates. I feel that is such because LDS is a party that has performed and that people love and appreciate. They like the way that we have worked in the assembly and our honesty.
Through this, our popularity has increased and we have seen other people from other parties joining us. Some people do not like this and I feel, through their conversation, that I am the target. This does not affect me. On the contrary, this makes me realise that I am doing something right. There are more leaders targeting me, but their own followers are coming to stand by me.
There will be the presidential debate and I know that I will be attacked but I can tell you that I have grown beyond this type of politics. When I pray, I do not ask God to make me the president of Seychelles. I ask him for wisdom so that if He wants me to lead this country, I will be able to do so with wisdom.
SNA: Some LDS followers say they do not approve of the decision to have Waven William, an ex Parti Lepep candidate, stand as an MNA for LDS. Could you explain why you made that choice?
WR: There are certain political strategies that need to be recognised. When you have someone who was in a prominent position decide to join you, you need to look at how you can welcome this person. When Waven William expressed his interest, we received him with open arms.
It is however normal for some people to feel the way they do. I am happy that the Grand Anse LDS committee has received him with open arms and he is doing a good job alongside the committee. First and foremost, for me, Waven William is a Seychellois who has made contributions to his country and who wants to make some more. He believed in our principles and finding what is good. Now that we have chosen the theme 'Sesel pour tou son zanfan' for this election, I am not interested to look at the history of a person.
I can say with great pride today that LDS is the only political party in the upcoming election that has Catholic Christians, Anglican Christians, Pentecostal Christians, Muslim and Hindu candidates. We have a great diversification and this for me represents Seychelles' majority and minority groups.
SNA: For the first time in Seychelles, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there won't be any rallies, which usually lead up to the election. How are you going to get around this?
WR: There is a frustration among people as they really want a rally to be organised. The motorcade that we were allowed to have turned out to be the biggest motorcade that ever happened in Seychelles.
Though a rally is not a possibility at the moment, I communicate with my followers through social media. When we do door to door we talk to the people, and of course, there will be the presidential debate and party political broadcasts through which we will outline our programme before the people. This interview we are doing is also another way to make people understand what we are looking for.
Today the energy among our activists is extraordinary. For example, when we went to Anse Etoile for a blitz, we covered more than 150 houses with a group of about 200 activists.
SNA: Should you win the election how do you envision the transition the country will have to make from one party to the other in terms of leadership?
WR: The only thing that is in the constitution is that the newly elected president will be sworn in the day following the announcement of the results. I would like to ask, where we stand today, that Mr. Faure together with his party along with all other candidates, we can sit and discuss the type of transition our country has.
We can look at two scenarios for the outcome of the election. If the current president is re-elected, this is what needs to be done. If another candidate wins, the agenda of what needs to be done and places he needs to visit is clearly outlined.
There needs to be a programme as to how things should go. I compare this to England - the person who wins the election knows that he or she will receive a call from the Queen, asking the person to come see her. This needs to be clearly outlined here in Seychelles so that we know how things will go and what to expect. We have asked the Electoral Commission to work on a transition plan, but they said that this is not part of their responsibility. However, I feel that this subject needs to be addressed for our democracy.
I always talk about how we need to restructure politics. We are talking about having a fixed date for elections, have certain conditions where an incumbent government does not have the right to put in place new policies three months before an election. This is because I would like to see a transformation take place in Seychelles' political scene. It won't be based on personalities - this person's private life. The debate will be about what needs to be done for the country to improve our education, health, security among other things.
SNA: What are you proposing to electorates for this election in your party's manifesto?
WR: Firstly, we need to deal with the COVID situation. COVID-19 is as much of an economic problem as much as it is a medical condition. We will look at how we will relaunch the economy. We are talking in terms of investment to encourage and give more importance to Seychellois.
We need to make sure that the foreign exchange that we have does not leave Seychelles too fast. For example, the Electoral Commission has taken to print the ballot papers overseas, where there will be a lot of dollars leaving the country, whereas we have industries here where we could have printed the ballot papers.
If we are to touch on tourism, we need to look at the percentage of money that is going to leave the country. In our plan to keep this money in the country and develop our economy, there is also the element of having a dialogue. Seychelles at the moment has helped businesses by paying their staffs so it is important for a business, with most of the hotels being international chains, to look at how they can in return help us so that we can sustain ourselves.
At the same time, when we are looking at how we give more encouragement to Seychellois owned businesses, especially the small ones. Without becoming discriminatory or targeting foreigners, we need to look at how to encourage Seychellois to start a business as simple as cleaning a swimming pool.
Looking at agriculture - it is easy to import products into the country, but shouldn't we be looking at ways to subsidise some farmers so that they can produce more locally, cutting on importation.
We have spoken lengthy about STC (Seychelles Trading Company) in the National Assembly. My disappointment is that STC has not taken the necessary actions to bring down its costs and hence passing them onto the clients. When we talk about STC, we want to see a company that will give Seychellois the best. That is why I was urging the company to sell more wholesale so that people can buy things at a cheaper price. There are also too many middlemen involved. We need to be frank and direct and remember that it is the consumers who come first.
SNA: Tourism, the number one pillar of the country's economy, has received the hardest blow from the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you intend to revamp the economy to ensure Seychelles makes it out of this crisis?
WR: In line with our ways of thinking, the country shouldn't have a Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture. These are two sectors that need to be emphasised, hence there is the need to have two different ministries for these sectors.
We want these two sectors to receive the necessary attention that they truly need. The person who is in charge of agriculture will have to think only about agriculture, farmers and consumers. The same applies as we develop the fisheries sector. We all agree that the fisheries sector needs to undergo more development as this is our equivalent of a diamond mine. We need to look at how we can use this resource in a sustainable manner, getting the best price out of it and in a way that the Seychelles population will truly benefit.
This will help improve the lives of people, trickling down to the improvement of our children's education as there will be more possibilities. As the wealth of the country increases a Seychellois student overseas will not have to come back to Seychelles after receiving their first degree, work for two years so as to be able to later do their master's degree.
There is a need to also look at the small industries. We could have a factory that produces certain parts that we can later export. This can be parts for different things such as computers. What is stopping us from prepping SIT student to think in this manner? Then there will be the need to market ourselves. It is true that we cannot mass produce because of our size and all, but I believe that Seychellois has the entrepreneurship spirit in them and we will need to give them the encouragement.
Along the same line of technology, a person can sit at home and do a lot of things such as develop programmes, however, this is not encouraged right now. These are ways to 'import' foreign exchange and this is key.
SNA: The cost of living is a subject that LDS has spoken loudly about in the National Assembly. How will you address this subject should you head the country?
WR: COVID has a direct impact on the cost of living in the country. At the moment the value of the salary that people are getting has gone down by more than 30 percent. We need to look at how we can bring down the cost of living. We are looking into entering into a partnership with the private sector where Seychelles can have its own cargo boat.
Why do commodities have to go through Dubai? They get most of their commodities from India. What we are proposing is to import directly from India. We would like to have direct links with producers. And this is where the role of STC needs to be reviewed. As a company, STC will be importing commodities on board the cargo vessel and we can negotiate with India to link us with different markets directly.
Both India and South Africa are close by which is a plus for Seychelles. It will take fewer days for the cargo boat to get to Seychelles. By doing this, the money that people have in hand will have more value. When this happens, we want to encourage and develop a culture of saving. We want to emphasize on individual responsibilities and if we can move into this direction, Seychellois will reach greater heights.
We want the country to run like it is a business. What does this mean? Imagine you are a civil servant for the government. When a letter is addressed to you, you need to treat it as if you are operating a business - if you do not reply, you will lose a client. By sending a reply, the other person will know where they stand and not have to wait a long time or wrote to the minister or president.
It is not only about achieving a goal but also being recognised for your ability and the system will be based on meritocracy - If I deserve something, I will get it. We want people to put politics aside when doing their job. We want civil servants to be empowered. We want to divide politics form civil service - there needs to be a sense of permanence within the civil service.
SNA: What is your view on issues such as safe abortion, same-sex marriage, and the use of marijuana?
WR: This is a huge debate, one that society needs to have. At the same time, I feel that our society is hypocritical because we know that there are people with different sexual orientations and they are living together. Despite that, once talks start about legalisation, some people start objecting to the idea, thinking that if certain activities are decriminalised, the whole population will follow the same tendency. That is not the case and we need to move away from this mindset. I have participated and know about the debate that surrounds marijuana.
We need to look at where we are today as a country - we have 6,000 people who are addicted to heroin and cocaine. We have a big problem. What do we do? I would say that my priority is to fight against the importation of heroin and the likes of it. We need to put an end to it. Let's give treatment to those who are using heroin. Let us give them a programme that will truly get them off this poison so that they can have a normal life.
On our side, we have a packed programme against heroin and cocaine under which border control will need to become an absolute priority. On the other side, we will give them the required treatment to the users. At the same time, society will have a talk about the use of recreational marijuana.
I am here to say to our youth - "You do not need drugs to have a good life, so try to find a way to live life without using cannabis so as to get high and be happy. You can be happy and normal without these things."
I am a person who respects others. I know that we each have our tendencies. I am married and I'm heterosexual but there are people who are gay or have other sexual orientations. I am here to respect their sexual orientation. I look at the person as an individual as well as their personality.