Mauritius: The cost of democracy - Money politics, or how parties get away with it

On 29 October, Roukaya Kasenally and Ramola Ramtohul, two academics at the University of Mauritius, released a study on the cost of conducting politics in Mauritius and the amount spent by each party in contesting general elections. What they found was that politics was becoming ever more expensive, with the nexus between cash and politics deepening. How are political parties getting away with money politics?

Political parties in Mauritius don't exist. At least legally speaking. That's one of the reasons why there is little control over how much cash they spend and where they get it from. According to the law, voluntary organizations making up more than seven individuals automatically fall within the am- bit of the Registration of Associations Act 1978, mandating such organizations to produce their accounts, sources of funds, submit themselves to audits and fall under the gaze of institutions such as the Financial Intelligence Unit. The problem is that the Registration of Associations Act specifically excludes political parties from its definition of an 'association' and with no other law specifically dealing with them, it makes political parties the only institutions in the country that operate totally outside any law or financial scrutiny.

"As of now we don't really have anybody regulating how political parties get their cash and how they operate, somehow parties in Mauritius have never been put under that kind of scrutiny" constitutional expert Milan Meetarbhan tells l'express. In fact, the only time political parties legally exist is election time when they have to register themselves with the Electoral Supervisory Commission, but after the election, they simply melt back into legal limbo. "You just have this small window when they have some legal status" explains Roukaya Kassenally, co-author of the study, "but the authorities don't actually have any sanctioning power against political parties because they don't really exist". Individual party candidates have to submit how much they spend (Rs150, 000 is the legal spending limit since 1989 under the Representation of People Act 1958), "this is ridiculous because parties and candidates spend much more than that, but while candidates supply that information, there is no way of controlling how much a party puts in an election, this loophole has been closed in other countries, but has been left open in Mauritius" she adds. For Meetarbhan, "there has been no political will" to address this problem.

It's not too hard to see why. The study estimates that a mainstream political party can spend as much as Rs330 million on a 30-day campaign, up to Rs5 million to run a baz in a single constituency and spend between Rs5,000 and Rs10, 000 to buy a vote. The study estimates that political parties have got up to Rs1.5 billion from various individuals, groups and companies over the last 35 years. With so much cash and no legal party structures to speak of, control over it has allowed party leaders and dynasties to cement their hold on political parties. Often with controversial results: following the 1987 elections the Mouvement Socialiste Militant built a headquarters at the Sun Trust building - ostensibly using donations to the party - to provide a perpetual war chest for the party but controlled by the Jugnauth family. In 2015 a police raid on the home of Labour Party leader Navin Ramgoolam uncovered over Rs200 million in a safe that Ramgoolam explained by saying it was just his per diems and contributions since 2005 to build a new headquarters for the party at Guy Rozemont square and the infamous Rs10 million cheque received by the Mouvement Militant Mauricien from the now-defunct BAI Group. Other more unsavory aspects of the problem come out of the 2018 report of the commission of enquiry on the drug trade headed by former Supreme Court judge Paul Lam Shang Leen where he heard testimony that drug traffickers financed the campaigns of certain candidates in the 2014 elections. The report stated that the government must urgently look into party financing "in order to prevent funding by traffickers". Things have changed a lot since Sada Reddi, one of the pane- lists at the launch of the report and a candidate at the 1976 election recalled how he only had Rs5,000 in the bank at the time and spent just Rs250 on his electoral campaign.

Cutting the gordian knot

There have been many proposals to solve the problem of regulating party funding. In 2002, the Sachs Commission proposed a model where parties would be funded by the state, following that a select committee headed by Emmanuel Leung Shing rejected state funding and proposed instead raising the legal spending limit for each party candidate from Rs150,000 to Rs1 million. A proposal that was echoed by the 2019 political financing bill that fell flat after failing to get opposition support to push through the constitutional changes required to pass the bill. It was during the debates on the 2019 bill that the stance of the various big parties on state funding became much clearer: XavierLuc Duval of the Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate, who headed the committee that submitted proposals to the government in 2016, included state funding for parties - the state setting aside Rs150 million for this purpose - in his proposals, a position that was also backed by the MMM's Paul Bérenger and the Labour Party's Arvin Boolell during the parliamentary debates on the bill back in July 2019. Having the state fund political parties as an alternative to the current opaque system, however, would be a hard sell to the public. In a 2015 survey by the firm Afrobarometer (the only survey so far to ask this question), no less than 79 per cent of Mauritians rejected the idea.

However, according to Meetarbhan, the idea is less novel than it seems; "we already have the state partially funding campaigns in front of everybody although we don't realize it". The state funds through advertising certain media out- lets such as newspapers and radios, the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation is a form of free political advertising that other parties in other countries usually have to pay for and before elections ministries and civil servants organize functions where the government goes and makes electoral promises or attacks its political opponents: a state-subsidized rally. "The only difference is that right now this form of state-funding of politics only benefits one side" he says.

National vs local

This question of political financing is also pertinent given that campaigning for the village council elections to be held on 22 November is currently underway across the 130 villages of the country. Although the study covered national-level elections, Kasenally says cash also plays a part at the level of the village council election too. "It plays out a little differently, obviously that's where the party grassroots are and these elections do have an impact on national politics," she says. For a start, there are way more candidates, 5,490 registered candidates in 610 groups contesting 1,170 village council seats. "The transactions that place here are primarily based on cash and small scale gift-giving and due to its scale it's less visible" she explains. An individual village council candidate may not have to spend as much as one standing for a seat at the National Assembly, but the total amount of cash circulating during such polls is not that much far behind. Just to take one example: in the 2019 bill proposing to change party financing rules, it was proposed that each candidate standing for a village council seat be allowed to spend Rs200,000 on their campaign. No mean sum. During the debates on the bill in parliament on 9 July 2019, the then-leader of the opposition Xavier-Luc Duval extrapolated that that would mean that were one single group to contest every seat at a village council election that would mean an authorized total spending limit of Rs234 million. Not too far off from Kassenally's study that estimated a party spending Rs330 million to run a 30-day campaign for a general election. Clearly, village council elections too see a lot of cash being spent.

In the meantime, with political parties acting as a law unto themselves, and with politicians benefitting from it being the only ones in a position to change anything, this state of affairs looks set to continue for some time to come.

Corporate donations

In 2019 the left-wing party Rezistans ek Alternativ published a document showing how much corporates have to political parties during the 2014 elections, culling the figures from disclosures in their annual reports. What they found was that some of the biggest conglomerates in the country had pumped in Rs63 million to political parties in the 2014 election. The biggest donors included New Mauritius Hotels: Rs7.5 million, Rogers Group: Rs7 million, Medine Group: Rs6.9 million, Gamma Civic: Rs6.1 million, IBL: Rs6 million, Terra: Rs.5.9 million.

State financing: where does the public stand?

In 2015, Afrobarometer conducted the first, and only, survey of its kind asking the public whether they backed the idea of using public money to finance political parties and their election campaigns. The key results were: 79% opposed the idea of the state financing the campaigns of political parties. 80% believed the Electoral Supervisory Commission should be able to scrutinize and control the way political parties raise their funds. 90% believed political parties should be responsible for raising their own funds. Over 90% opposed paying more taxes to allow the state to finance the activities of political parties.

More From: L'Express

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