Mauritius: Politics - Why the position of the Leader of the Opposition is a high-stakes game

analysis

When the National Assembly resumes on 23 March, it could conceivably do so without a Leader of the Opposition facing down the Prime Minister, Pravind Jugnauth. Arvin Boolell's resignation as Leader of the Opposition after the entente between the Labour Party and the MMM, PMSD and Reform Party blew apart over the question of backing Navin Ramgoolam as the prime ministerial candidate at the next election, has now left the President, Pradeep Roopun, and the MMM and PMSD in a conundrum.

Since Boolell's announcement, Paul Bérenger and Xavier-Luc Duval have gone to the State House in Réduit for talks with Roopun. According to section 73 of the Constitution, it is Roopun who will have to appoint Boolell's replacement. The trips to the State House yesterday is part of that same process. "The constitution mandates that the president, in his own deliberate judgement, will have to call in the opposition leaders and discuss with them who is the one who will be able to rally the majority of the opposition ranks behind him," explains Vinod Boolell, former Supreme Court judge. The trouble is that with the opposition fractured between three opposition parties, the task facing Roopun is more daunting. "If you have one opposition party there is no problem, but if there are many, then the president has to hold talks with each one of them and try to settle on some sort of consensus of who they will back as leader of the opposition."

The numbers game

The problem facing Roopun and the other opposition parties as a whole is the complicated mosaic that the opposition benches resemble. "The president has discretion in choosing who the opposition leader will be, but only up to a certain extent," says Rajen Narsinghen, senior legal lecturer at the University of Mauritius. Roopun is bound by the arithmetic within the National Assembly, "it cannot be according to his whims and caprices," Narsinghen adds. Here is the problem in a nutshell: The Labour Party has 12 seats in parliament, the MMM 9 and the PMSD 5. "This is why Arvin Boolell got the post in the first place, the Labour Party had the most seats within the opposition," according to constitutional expert Milan Meetarbhan. The reason why the MMM and the PMSD have been caught off-balance by Boolell's move is that it forces their hands.

Both parties may have broken with the Labour Party over whether or not to have Navin Ramgoolam as their prime ministerial candidate, but to take up the position of Leader of the Opposition, both parties will have to more formally extend their entente even deeper. Something which neither party has said it wants to do right now, insisting on keeping a loose modus vivendi. "In the present circumstances, the MMM and the PMSD are still individual parties and not an alliance or a parliamentary group, unless these two decide to deepen their entente, nothing much has fundamentally changed in terms of the balance of forces within the National Assembly, Labour is still the largest opposition party and we are back to square one just after the November 2019 election before the Labour-MMM-PMSD entente idea was floated," says Meetarbhan. Boolell's resignation has thrown the ball into the MMM-PMSD court: either come closer together and decide on a leader of the opposition or failing that, it is possible that Roopun may have no other choice but to re-offer the leader of the opposition seat to Boolell or another candidate from the Labour Party. This is the electoral arithmetic that Roopun now has to navigate.

'Unprecedented'

The current conundrum being discussed at the State House, and within the opposition parties, is an unprecedented one. And poses some new questions. Sure, the seat of the Leader of the Opposition has changed hands before and it has not always gone to the largest party in the opposition.

In 1993, for example, after the MMM broke with the MSM and went into the opposition it came with more MPs than the then-leader of the opposition Navin Ramgoolam had. At the time, Paul Bérenger decided not to challenge Ramgoolam's position and agreed to keep Ramgoolam as the opposition leader. "The difference back then was that this was done consensually, there was an alliance brewing between Labour and the MMM to contest the 1995 election," maintains Vinod Boolell. In 2006, a de facto alliance between the MMM and the MSM in the opposition broke down - the MSM had more MPs but Paul Bérenger was leader of the opposition - which saw the post changing hands from Bérenger to Bodha and then back to Bérenger again in 2007 after two defections from the MSM whittled down its numbers. "That was a question of simple numbers. And there was another difference, the MSM actually wanted the post after its alliance with the MMM within the opposition broke down," posits Meetarbhan. And then there was December 2016: after Xavier-Luc Duval broke with the MSM over its prosecution commission bill to whittle down the powers of the Director of Public Prosecutions, it went into the opposition with more MPs than the then-opposition leader Paul Bérenger, who made way for Duval. "That too was a simple question of who had the bigger numbers," Boolell points out. All these previous examples of the post changing hands were either the result of an electoral agreement or a straightforward mathematical calculation. "What we are seeing today is something that I have never seen in a country with a Westminster system of government," Vinod Boolell says, "People have grabbed the post in the past, there has never been a situation like today where nobody seemed to want the job, nor could reach an agreement on who the leader of the opposition should be." Narsinghen agrees with this assessment. "As far as I can recall we have never been in this situation before, and there has never been such a degree of confusion within an opposition like this."

What can the President really do?

Boolell has quit as opposition leader. Bérenger has said he does not want the job. And Duval says that should Arvin Boolell not want the job back, it should go to Bérenger.

What can Roopun actually do in such a situation? Should no consensus emerge from within the opposition, can Roopun simply pick who he thinks commands the majority within the opposition? The answer according to Vinod Boolell: Yes and No. "Yes technically he has the power to appoint somebody, but if they themselves don't want it then there is nothing he can do except simply keep talking with the opposition parties and hope some kind of agreement eventually arises." In short, until the MMM and the PMSD agree on their own Leader of the Opposition, or the Labour Party agrees that Boolell or another parliamentarian from that party agrees to resume the post. "What is clear is that the leader of the opposition is a constitutional post and this situation cannot continue for very long without leading to some sort of constitutional crisis," warns the former Supreme Court judge.

With Parliament, not having a Leader of the Opposition may not lead to changes that we have not seen already. Arvin Boolell has been suspended as Leader of the Opposition at least twice by the Speaker Sooroojdev Phokeer: once in February 2020 and a second time in November that same year. "All that seemed to change was that there were no private notice questions," explains Meetarbhan, "but outside Parliament is a different matter". Various constitutional appointments, for instance, require consultation with the Leader of the Opposition: the Electoral Supervisory Commission, the Public Service Commission, the heads of the Ombudsman's office and the director of the National Audit Office, to name a few. "One can argue that if there is no leader of the opposition, you can continue making such appointments since institutions cannot just grind to a halt," says Meetarbhan, "but that will give rise to its own set of challenges, including legal."

There is a certain delicious irony in this situation. Recently, the post of Leader of the Opposition has been subjected to several humiliations; whether it is the speaker deciding how the leader of the opposition can or cannot use his office to hold press conferences or looking to change questions submitted for parliament. "Now all of a sudden, it takes this kind of crisis for everybody to realize what an important post this really is," argues Meetarbhan.

Should the impasse continue, with the opposition parties continuing on their game of brinkmanship with Boolell insisting on giving up the post and the MMM and the PMSD, after breaking up with Labour, unable to agree amongst themselves on his replacement, Meetarbhan concludes, "this would be a serious blow to the way our democracy functions".

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