Mauritius: Regional Assembly - How Serge Clair reshaped Rodriguan politics

The Chief Commissioner, aged 81, is hospitalised in Mauritius. This event has shaken the political scene in Rodrigues and is breeding realignments. It only underscores the extent to which Clair has dominated - and effectively remodelled - politics in the "little sister island" since the late 1970s.

Rodrigues before the 1970s

Rodrigues had never figured very highly in the colonial period of Mauritius. For long, it was considered an undeveloped backwater, the place where troublesome politicians from mainland like Emmanuel Anquetil were exiled by the British authorities. Politics too entered Rodrigues late. Although Mauritius enjoyed universal suffrage in the 1959 elections, when mainland Mauritians would vote for representatives in the colonial-era legislative council, it was only after a battle in the Supreme Court, spearheaded by Gaetan Duval and the PMSD, that Rodrigues got the vote for the first time in the 1967 elections.

Not surprisingly, 1967 paved the way for the PMSD's political dominance over Rodrigues. In that election, Gaëtan Duval's PMSD got 96 percent of the vote. Other mainland parties such as the Independence Party - a bloc of Labour- IFB and CAM - never had a chance, due not just to the PMSD's role in giving Rodriguans the vote, but also to the fact that the ethnic makeup of these parties allowed no purchase in Rodrigues at a time when ethnic politics was in full sway. In fact, the candidate for the Labour-IFB-CAM bloc, Jean Max Lucchesi, bagged just 83 - or 1.17 percent - of the votes.

The PMSD's rule over Rodrigues tended to treat it as little more than a safe vote bank to buttress its position within wider politics in Mauritius, where the PMSD would often play the secession card. "The PMSD and Gaëtan Duval used Rodrigues to pressure politics within Mauritius, threatening from time to time to break Rodrigues away from Mauritius into the arms of France to try to dissuade people from voting for the MMM whom they accused of being communists," explains Ram Seegobin of Lalit. Within Rodrigues, however, the PMSD exercised power through a mixture of stirring up resentment against other Mauritian parties and doling out paper jobs as government relief workers. "People in Rodrigues relied a lot on fishing and agriculture, which are not very reliable," says Seegobin - Rodrigues is periodically hit by droughts and cyclones - "and given that the Labour Party was doing this in mainland Mauritius, it should not be surprising that Duval was doing the same thing in Rodrigues too."

In fact, just before the 1982 elections, the Mauritian government went on a hiring spree, giving out 21,000 jobs within mainland Mauritius. All this is to say that what the PMSD was doing in Rodrigues was not that much out of tune with what was going on in Mauritius too. But the PMSD's rule also suffered from a massive contradiction; while the charismatic Gaëtan Duval posed as the champion of protection of Rodrigues, the Rodriguan administration was dominated by civil servants from Mauritius and the PMSD's candidates for Rodrigues were also parachuted from Mauritius. Duval, as the strongman of Rodrigues, took the blame. As television, newspapers and the radio began suffusing throughout Rodriguan society, he was also blamed for what Rodriguans noticed were stark differences between life in Rodrigues and on the Mauritian mainland. Radio was what first signalled trouble for the PMSD's hold on Rodrigues. In fact, a popular radio broadcast by former Catholic priest Serge Clair beamed into Rodrigues over the MBC.

Resisting Mauritian domination

"He was against the PMSD and the way it was dominating Rodrigues and using it just as a platform to win votes and seats in the Mauritian parliament," says José Arunasalom, former tourism minister and member of the MMM, "the PMSD was just there to get the votes, whereas Serge Clair wanted politics to consider the specificities of Rodrigues." In a way, the PMSD was the author of its own political decline: "The PMSD used propaganda against other Mauritius-based parties, but that turned against them when people started turning away from the PMSD as a Mauritian party too," comments Seegobin, "this was a reaction against the way Rodrigues was treated like a colony by Mauritian politics, and Clair started resisting that."

In a sense, Clair was riding a larger wave. Throughout the 1970s, the PMSD lost ground politically along with the Labour Party. "The PMSD was becoming outdated in Mauritius and people in Rodrigues were following what was happening in Mauritius," says Arunasalom. If the politics of expectations in Mauritius were throwing up a younger generation attracted by the left, the same thing was happening in Rodrigues too. Except that, in Mauritius, it was the MMM riding that wave, whereas in Rodrigues it was what would become Clair's OPR. "Aside from being anti-PMSD, there were other vague similarities between the MMM and the OPR as well, such as empowering the Kreol language or self-sufficiency; but since Clair stressed Rodriguan identity, there was a limit and Clair could never totally identify with the MMM either. Let us put it this way, there were no major ideological differences between Clair and the MMM," argues Seegobin.

The reasons why it was Clair, and not Paul Bérenger, who ended up challenging the PMSD in Rodrigues were two-fold. One was the fact that the MMM's wider campaign did not specifically focus on Rodrigues. "It had its own issues, for example, the MMM did a lot of work in EPZs in Mauritius, but there were no EPZs in Rodrigues, the societies were different and the issues were different," comments Jocelyn Chan Low, historian and former academic at the University of Mauritius. The other was that the MMM itself consciously decided not to wade into Rodriguan waters. "Within the MMM there was always this feeling that Rodriguans had to take matters into their own hands," according to Arunasalom. With the MMM challenging the PMSD exclusively within Mauritius, "this opened up space for Clair to challenge the PMSD in Rodrigues, where as a former priest, he was well placed to do that in a society where Catholicism is a major influence and marker of Rodriguan identity," says Chan Low.

In the 1976 elections, Clair formally emerged as a rising star in the politics of Rodrigues. He distinguished himself for being the only native of Rodrigues to challenge the PMSD; this was not the case with the RDM (an offshoot of the Mauritius-based UDM), still less was it for other Mauritian parties. A campaign rally held by Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, Harold Walter and Kher Jagatsingh in Rodrigues was jeered by Clair's supporters. For its part, the PMSD accused the former priest of being a communist and a catspaw for the MMM in Rodrigues. Clair, then 33 years old, officially founded the OPR a mere three months before the 1976 elections. Despite its recent vintage, the OPR ended up winning 34 percent of the vote and cutting down the PMSD to 56 percent. The Labour-CAM alliance could not cross the 10 percent mark, and the MMM didn't contest in Rodrigues. On the island, Clair and his new OPR were the new contenders for power.

Thwarting the PMSD and full-fledged autonomy

The continued dominance of Clair is what is keeping the PMSD from returning to Rodrigues. This has been an old ambition nurtured by the current PMSD leader, Xavier- Luc Duval. The 2000 election was the first time, after a long while, that the party (at least its offshoot the PMXD at the time) fielded a candidate in Rodrigues again. Its candidates got just 277 and 172 votes, respectively. It was only in 2019 that the PMSD returned as a serious contender for power in the island. Thanks to Clair's political legacy, "the general feeling is that Rodriguan autonomy is the way forward. I personally think it is close to impossible for a Mauritian party to expect that it can just go to Rodrigues and take over again," insists Arunasalom.

In fact, Clair is the main reason why such ambitions have borne no fruit thus far. "It's difficult for the PMSD to go into Rodrigues, unless there is some kind of social or economic crisis; that being said, once the OPR no longer has Clair to lead it, we are in unknown territory and anything is possible," says Seegobin. This is the weak point in the OPR political machine: "If there is a criticism, it is that Serge Clair has not done enough to groom somebody else to take over and there is no clear succession plan for the OPR," Arunasalom points out. Which is why Clair's health problems are causing such wheeling and dealing in Rodrigues today.

However, there is a bigger problem for other parties looking to replace Clair too. And that has to do with the way Clair's historic dominance in Rodrigues has shaped relations between the politics of Rodrigues and Mauritius. "Rodrigues is economically dependent on Mauritius for buying its exports, is economically subsidised by Mauritius and is dependent for infrastructure and financing its administration," says Chan Low. By extricating Rodrigues out of political competition within the Mauritian mainland, Clair's steady dominance in Rodrigues has led to a legacy of the regional administration enjoying good relations and forming part of every Mauritian government, regardless of who is in power in Port Louis. "They have benefitted from this and now they know that it is better to be part of Mauritian government rather than backing mainland parties that might end up outside of power, with Rodrigues ending up getting punished for it," concludes Seegobin, "Serge Clair, more than anyone else, has developed this relationship with Port Louis." According to Chan Low, "they know that if an opposition party from Mauritius comes there and wins power, this arrangement could change."

This balancing act between Rodrigues maintaining good relations with all Mauritian governments to ensure continued economic support, while at the same running their own affairs in Rodrigues, has not just made it more difficult for Mauritian parties like the PMSD to enter politics there, but it has also ensured the side-lining of more radical parties there pushing for complete independence from Mauritius. This is why, with Serge Clair's health problems, all eyes are fixed on Rodrigues.

The remaking of Rodriguan identity

Throughout the 1970s, Clair and his OPR began developing their ideas in earnest and filling the void left by the PMSD. Among these ideas, was resisting the idea of the tutelage and domination by Mauritian parties and the development of Rodrigues and a Rodriguan identity distinct from Mauritius. In his newspaper, Clair often published notes in the history of Rodrigues, corruption within the local administration and unfulfilled promises made by Mauritius-based politicians. Unlike Duval, however, Clair's politics stopped short of calling for outright independence. Just how deeply these ideas were seeping through Rodriguan society could be seen in a curious episode in 1979 when a Rodriguan man claimed to converse with saints with crosses appearing all over his body. While the Mauritian doctor treating him could not explain what was going on, locals flocked to the local celebrity. The crosses, the man claimed, were signs pointing to a devastating cyclone that would hit Rodrigues, should it not get rid of Mauritian domination.

All this was pointing to an end to PMSD rule and the rise of Clair's OPR to power in the 1982 elections. The total wipe-out of the Labour-PMSD in mainland Mauritius was mirrored in Rodrigues as well. While it is rare for leaders of political parties to directly compete in the same constituency, in 1982, both Clair and Gaëtan Duval faced off directly in Rodrigues. Clair won 8,029 votes while Duval trailed with just 4,621 votes. The MMM had won Mauritius and the OPR now dominated Rodrigues. Clair was inducted in the Mauritian government as minister for Rodrigues, the first time a Rodriguan had made it to a Mauritian cabinet. "From 1982 onwards there has been an implicit understanding that Rodrigues would be now represented by Rodriguans," says Seegobin. Clair had rewritten the politics of his island.

Clair's OPR continued to dominate politics in Rodrigues and completely reshaped it. In 1983, while the MMM fell apart in Mauritius, the OPR's hold on Rodrigues remained unaffected. By 1987, elections in Rodrigues were being exclusively contested by Rodriguan parties, with Mauritius-based parties no longer there. In fact, the next time a Mauritian party candidate looked to contest the election there was in 1991 - the Labour-PMSD candidate got just 119 votes. It was only in 1995 that another serious challenger emerged against Clair's OPR, the MR led by Nicolas Von Mally. So complete was Clair's rewriting of Rodriguan politics, argues Chan Low, "that even younger parties like the MR that emerged to challenge Clair adopted his language and his politics focused on a Rodriguan identity".

Clair's legacy ultimately culminated in autonomy for Rodrigues and the founding of the Rodrigues Regional Assembly in 2002, patterned on the arrangement between the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. Not surprisingly, the government that passed it was made up of the MMM-MSM, both close to Clair and sympathetic to the idea of allowing Rodrigues greater decision-making powers. "This autonomy is now embedded in the Mauritian constitution and would need a 3/4ths majority to overturn, something that would not be politically good for anyone to contemplate," Arunasalom points out. "One would expect," Seegobin states, "that being in power for so long, a party would get tired or used up, but this achievement of autonomy, and the credit for getting it, is what has kept Clair and the OPR ahead in politics in Rodrigues."

In fact, since 1982, Clair and the OPR have dominated Rodriguan politics, except for a brief spell in 2010 when the OPR lost power to the MR led by Von Mally. One of the reasons for this was the electoral reform in Rodrigues that introduced a dose of proportional representation, allowing opposition parties to boost their representation in the regional assembly. A fact that Clair and the OPR have since bemoaned. Nevertheless in 2014, the OPR resumed its rule that has continued since.

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