Mauritius elections could shift Indian Ocean political balance
General elections in Mauritius this week could put leftists in power on the tiny island off the coast of Africa. That could help tip the political balance in the Indian Ocean and increase opposition to United States air and navy bases at Diego Garcia.
Prime Minister Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, who is decidedly pro-West, is fighting for his political life. His political coalition's effort to reduce his country's dependence on its sugar crop has been stymied by a world trade recession. The nation's large youth population, whose votes will almost certainly decide the election, is beset by high unemployment.
Sir Ramgoolam's main opposition comes from the leftist Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM), which has pledged to negotiate the end of the treaty between Mauritius and Britain for the lease of Diego Garcia, which is home to a US air and naval task force in the Indian Ocean. The leftish opposition wants an end to an agreement between Britain and the United States which allows for the use of Diego Garcia as an American base.
Until 1965 Britian administered Diego Garcia as a dependency of Mauritius. But in that year, shortly before Britain granted Mauritius independence in 1968, Britain arranged to separate jurisdiction over Diego Garcia from that of Mauritius. A 1966 British agreement with Washington gave the US base rights.
The MMM sees the Diego Garcia base as a threat to the peace and security of the Indian Ocean, and is committed to declaring the area as a nuclear-free peace zone. It would not favor granting military rights to either of the superpowers.
The MMM's policies strike a very receptive chord with the governments of the Seychelles and Madagascar. The governments of Mozmbique and Tanzania also favor an Indian Ocean peace zone. And the leftist group has links with the opposition groups in the French Overseas Department island of Reunion.
Though Ramgoolam must struggle to keep a coalition going and his detractors point to his age (he will be 82 this year), he is not an easy man to defeat.
Ramgoolam fought and won three elections since Mauritius' independence in 1968. In the last elections in 1976, his Labor Party emerged with fewer seats than the MMM, but managed to hold on to office by arranging a coalition with two of the opposition parties.
The prime minister has put together a coalition of three parties: his own once-dominant Labor Party; the Rassemblement Progrese Liberte, a new multiracial middle-class party; and the Mauritian Group, a splinter of the Parti Mauricien Social Democrate (PMSD), which gets most of its support from the minority creole and French communities.
The real threat to Ramgoolam this year comes from the election alliance between the MMM and the ''young Turk'' PMSD group that broke way from Ramgoolam's Labour Party, led by Harris Boodhoo. It stresses the supposed grievances of the lower-caste Hindus.
The MMM emerged as the largest single party after the 1976 elections but, like the Labor Party, it has also suffered from defections. Its effective leader , Paul Berenger, is a youthful French-Mauritian intellectual who cut his political teeth on the barricades of the Left Bank is Paris in the late 1960s.
The governmnet claims that the MMM's election campaign is being financed by Libya. Berenger counterattacks by alleging that the US Central Intelligence Agancy is actively supporting the prime minister because of American fears that an MMM victory would jeopardize the future of its military base on Diego Garcia.
But the youth vote and another factor -- the multiplicity of Mauritian political parties, 31 in all -- make it difficult to forecast results of the June 11 elections.
The voting age had been reduced to 18, and since over 32 percent of Mauritians are between the ages of 15 and 19, it seems certain the youth will cast the deciding ballots.
With 31 parties contesting 70 seats, Mauritian elections show what can happen when democracy runs amok. This large number of parties reflects the heterogeneity of the island's ethnic and religious population, as well as its sharp class differences. There are Hindus and Muslims of Indian origin (who form the great majority), Creoles, Franco-Mauritians, and Chinese.
The island it has had a remarkable success in stemming population growth -- down to three children per family -- despite a significant rise in the 15- to 24 -year-old age group. The projection is that the population will have risen to the million mark in 1985, from its present approximate 950,000.
The sensitive problem is that with over 48 percent of the population under 20 , and with emigration opportunities severely restricted, the only hope of avoiding severe social upheavals is by creating sufficient new employment opportunities. Yet in the last few years, the number of new jobs created in industry has averaged only about 3,000 -- which means a steady rise in youth unemployment.
Despite these circumstances Mauritius continues to enjoy a sound international economic rating, as was shown by the ease with which a $40 million loan was raised last month in London. The International Monetary Fund has also shown a ready willingness to help Mauritius.
Out of this bedlam of economic crisis politics, it seems unlikely that any of the 31 competing parties can hope to win outright. The issue at the end of the day will be the ability of the stronger parties to win over enough support to form a coalition government. It is at this point that the small, but important, Islamic Party of Mauritius could play a key role.