Mauritius: Municipal elections 2021 - The balance of forces in the five towns

Municipal elections are due to be held in June this year across the five towns in the country. It will be a crucial test of strength of which party commands the heart of urban Mauritius. With the political map having changed dramatically since the last time municipal elections were held in 2015, between the MSM that has everything to lose, a Labour Party, a MMM-PMSD bloc and a plethora of new parties looking to turn their street power into votes, the election could lead to many surprises. In the meantime, how has the political map changed in the different towns of Mauritius in recent years?

Does the government have the option of postponing the municipal elections?

The next municipal elections across the five towns in the country are due to be held in June this year. That's because of section 11 of the Local Government Act 2011 which decided that municipal polls be held in 2015 and "thereafter every 6 years or in such other year, and at such date, as the President shall, on the advice of the Prime Minister, appoint". In the recent past, the government has delayed local polls, most notoriously village council elections that were pushed back from taking place in 2018 to 2020.

The question is, does the government have the power to do the same with municipal elections too? "Theoretically, yes they can," explains constitutional expert Milan Meetarbhan. "The only local government authority that's mentioned in the constitution is the Rodrigues Regional Assembly, whereas municipal and village council elections are only mentioned in the Local Government Act 2011." What this means is that to push back a municipal poll, "they can simply introduce an amendment to the Local Government Act (the manner in which village council polls were postponed -ed.) or depending on how you interpret the clause on the President's decisionmaking power, since it's a simple amendment to the law a simple majority would suffice in parliament," concludes Meetarbhan.

The difference between 2015 and 2021

The last municipal elections were held in 2015, just after the 2014 elections that left both the Labour Party and the MMM shell-shocked. The result was a clean sweep of the municipal councillor seats by the MSM-PMSD-ML combine, with a traumatized Labour and MMM not winning a single municipality seat in any of the towns. "2014 was a landslide for the MSM, Labour and the MMM fell to bickering, there were the court cases against Navin Ramgoolam and Labour was struggling to survive, but today the situation is totally different in the towns," says Jocelyn Chan Low, historian and former head of the department of history and political science at the University of Mauritius. In the last national election in 2019, he points out, the MSM struggled in the towns with the opposition parties clawing back a lot of the ground they lost. "Today the context is that people are feeling the pinch economically," says Chan low. According to government statistics, 2020 and Covid-19 saw the number of unemployed climb to 62,200, 83% of businesses saw they lost income and 34% of households say they saw their incomes decline. The economic damage wrought, and scandals enmeshing the government since 2020 have fuelled street protests against the MSM-led government. "These crowds were drawn primarily from the urban areas," says Chan Low. The very same urban areas that will now vote in municipal elections. With the municipals seeing the mostly-MSM dominated municipalities being contested at the same time as anger is growing in the towns, at first glance, it would seem that it's the government's election to lose.

However, the problem is that this municipal poll is marked by many uncertainties. "It's a really tall order for anyone to predict what will happen at municipal elections, this is a completely new situation in many ways," says Jean-Claude de l'Estrac, former minister and journalist and who (as a former mayor) is familiar with the vagaries of local politics. The first is that the shortlived entente between the opposition parties has split apart from the Labour Party on one side and the MMMPMSD-Reform Party on the other. "This election will be very difficult to predict, the likelihood is that the opposition will be split which is likely to benefit the MSM, which would have the advantages of power, means and organization, the dispersion of votes will, overall, play in favour of the MSM," argues de l'Estrac, "we are in a new situation and there are many variables, so past track records of these parties should be taken with a big pinch of salt. At this stage this is speculation."

The new parties

One such variable is the emergence of new political parties growing out of recent anti-government agitation. Two such parties are the GREA founded (or rather re-founded) by former Attorney-General Rama Valayden and Linion Sitwayen of Bruneau Laurette. Both of whom enjoy overwhelmingly urban followings, a point driven home by Laurette when he declared that winning the electorate MMM and the PMSD was a possibility. When contacted by l'express whether he intended to throw his hat into the municipal ring, Laurette kept his cards close to his chest. "We are not dealing with the municipal elections at the moment, things are still in their gestation period so it would be pretentious to make any such declarations about municipal elections, for now nothing is confirmed," Laurette said. This however, could be subject to change pretty soon.

But there is some skepticism of how much electoral weight these new parties will carry. Referring to Laurette's party for instance, de l'Estrac says, "it's still a small party with its electoral track record yet to be proven, it's one thing agitating in the streets but it's another thing contesting an election." Chan Low agrees with this skepticism: "We have to remember that a lot of these people who came to these marches were there for different reasons such as ecologists and trade unionists, civil society by its very nature tends to be fractured with different causes to fight for, it remains to be seen how these can be organized into political parties."

This is not to say that small, new parties cannot have a leg in at all. Although carried out along party lines like general elections at the national level, the fact that municipal elections are carried out within smaller wards where localized support can count, smaller parties have in the past managed to squeeze in not once, but twice, into municipal councillor seats. The first time was the FSM during the 2001 municipal elections where they grabbed a single seat in ward 4 in Port Louis and the second time was during the 2012 municipal polls where Mario Bienvenu of the MMSD won a municipal seat in Curepipe (ending up as mayor between 2013 and 2014).

Port Louis

Within the capital Port Louis, the municipality is currently split between the MSM and the PMSD. Port Louis, which at the national level, is split between constituencies 1-4 in the 2019 saw the Labour Party make some gains.

So what is the tendency to watch out for in the capital? "It's clear that the Labour Party has made strong inroads within Port Louis while the MMM has tried to resist that, so definitely there has been a Labour revival in Port Louis between the 2014 and 2019 general elections," argues Chan Low.

According to de l'Estrac, "these elections are done in terms of wards, and a party can do well in one ward and not in another. I believe that the surprise may come from the Labour Party, in some areas it is very likely to do well, it has support in different wards of Port Louis and is likely to make a good showing". The question, he insists, is where is the MMM now? "The perception is that the MMM has weakened in Port Louis, but the MMM and the PMSD coming together is what would be novel in this municipal election, for the first time they would be fighting together to get a majority so I think we are going to see something new and inject a new dynamism in urban areas. This dynamism may provoke a backlash in rural areas as a result, but this won't be a problem for now in municipal elections."

Beau Bassin-Rose Hill

The town of Beau Bassin-Rose Hill spans over two national constituencies, Nos 19 and 20. Between the 2014 and 2019 general elections, the story has been one of a straightforward reconquest by the MMM.

"The MMM has basically recovered this town, so although the Reform Party wants to be in Beau Bassin, I expect that it will stay mostly MMM," Chan Low offers. What we have to remember, de l'Estrac points out, "municipal elections are not just run on national issues, the MMM-run municipality of Rose Hill was considered a model administration and did some good work in the past". But in Beau Bassin-Rose Hill, de l'Estrac says, Patrick Belcourt and his Lalians Lespwar is likely to be a factor. In the 2019 elections in no 19, Belcourt managed to get a respectable 2,966 votes away from the MMM, "this explains how Ivan Collendavelloo was elected, Belcourt is likely to do well in some wards within Beau Bassin-Rose Hill, so we have yet to see whether there will be a repetition of the Belcourt syndrome," he maintains, "in municipal elections candidate choice is crucial". This is not a particularly new phenomenon for Beau Bassin-Rose Hill. During a by-election in 1999, for instance, Rama Valayden (who incidentally has also formed his own party recently) ended up winning 1,532 votes leading to the defeat of Françoise Labelle and the victory of Xavier-Luc Duval.

Quatre-Bornes

At the national level, the city of Quatre-Bornes spans constituency no 18. Once again, this constituency was divvied up between the MSM and the PMSD in the 2015 municipal elections, but at the national level since 2015 the constituency has witnessed a lot of shifts. 2017, for instance, saw the MSM lose a seat and the Labour Party gain one in the constituency in a by-election and keep it in the 2019 election. It also saw the MMM lose a seat with the defection of Kavy Ramano from its ranks. The only constant in this divided and unpredictable town between 2014 and 2019 has been PMSD leader Xavier-Luc Duval. "In the municipals we don't know what will happen, whether Labour, MSM or the MMM-PMSD, it all depends on the types of candidates. Even at the last general election, the town was divided," Chan Low maintains.

For de l'Estrac, however, "in Quatre-Bornes it is the PMSD that will be the key. This is the town where the MMM-PMSD will have a stronger impact, its Xavier-Luc Duval's home constituency".

Curepipe

The town of Curepipe, which spans constituency no 17, is one of the towns where recent political developments might have a big effect, at least where municipal polls are concerned. "The synergy between the MMM and the PMSD will be felt in Quatre Bornes and in Curepipe" explains de l'Estrac, "that's because both parties have a history in these towns."

The issue is that the electorate shared by both the MMM and the PMSD has usually been split between the two parties in previous elections. "These two parties coming together now will be hard to beat, although we should not underestimate the effect of Michael Sik Yuen and the Labour Party in that town," says Chan Low.

Vacoas-Phoenix

Nowhere is the division of opposition votes likely to have more of an effect than in the town of Vacoas-Phoenix, which spans across constituencies no 15 and 16 nationally. "This is the one town where the dispersion of votes will have an effect, the MSM is quite strong in some areas and you have a very split opposition".

For Chan Low, the picture is complicated with candidates such as Nando Bodha (who recently broke with the MSM to go into the opposition), Joanna Bérenger and Kushal Lobine in the region. The thing to watch, Chan Low insists, "is that Bodha will have to show his mettle."

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