Blog: An apolitical Office of President occupied by a political beast?
The Office of President is supposed to be apolitical. What is this supposed to mean? It means that the person who occupies the post should neither do politics nor take sides in the politics of the country. Even though the law requires that before taking the presidential oath, the preselected candidate put forward and ‘elected’ in the Assembly should withdraw from the all instances of his (her) party, it does not mean that the president does not have preference for a particular political party and/or candidate. After all, the President has the right to vote.
The Office of President was created via a political coalition deal, in 1991, between Sir Anerood Jugnauth (SAJ), then leader of the MSM (Mouvement Socialiste Militant), and Paul Raymond Bérenger (PRB), leader of the MMM (Mouvement Militant Mauricien). The deal was for the President to be selected from the ranks of the MMM, and for SAJ to lead the country as Prime Minister. The MMM-MSM alliance won the 1991 elections and PRB appointed Minister of External Affairs. Mauritius became a republic on 12th March 1992 with Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo as interim President. Per the MSM-MMM political deal, Cassam Uteem, an experienced politician in the MMM became President on 30th June 1992 after he resigned from all instances of his party as required by law since the President is supposed to be apolitical. MSM-MMM honeymoon came to an end in 1993 when SAJ dismissed PRB and all members of the MMM from the government. The MMM later went on to form a coalition with the Parti Travailliste (Mauritian Labour Party (MLP)) led by Dr Navin Ramgoolam and they formed the 1995 government with Ramgoolam as PM. But the MLP-MMM coalition broke down in 1997 and the MMM went back to the opposition. A further political deal, which became known as the MedPoint deal, was struck in September 2000 between the same SAJ and PRB whereby, if the MSM-MMM alliance were to be elected at the 9/11 general elections, SAJ would occupy the seat of PM for the first 3 years (until 2003) and PRB would replace him as PM for the remaining 2 years and SAJ made President. Although people were aware of that deal, there was no referendum on the issue. The MMM-MSM alliance did win the 9/11 elections, but it was not expected for SAJ to resign as PM simply because a PM cannot be ‘elected’ in 2000 for 2003.
However, after the resignations of President Cassam Uteem and the Vice President Angidi Chettiar after he briefly became Acting President, Karl Offmann, another experienced politician, this time from the ranks of the MSM, took the presidential oath in February 2002 for 5 years after resigning from all instances of the MSM. But, coming Sep/Oct 2003, SAJ did resign as PM but Karl Offmann too resigned as President to make way for SAJ. In fact, before he resigned, I implored Karl Offmann to remain in office as he was supposed to be apolitical and was under no obligation to resign. But he did. In fact, when he took the presidential oath in 2002 for 5 years, he effectively misled the country since he must have known he would resign in 2003. He was a political beast, and he remained one till the end as he helped implement the political deal between SAJ and PRB. Such political manoeuvrings did not go down well with the people.
PM Ramgoolam’s gambles
Although at the 2005 general elections, PM Ramgoolam promised the people he would remove SAJ as President should he regain power, when he did regain power he did no such thing when SAJ’s presidential tenure came to an end in 2008. In a clear political move to prevent SAJ from going back into opposition politics, given that he too is a political beast, especially since SAJ had previously occupied the post of PM for 13 years, PM Ramgoolam renewed his mandate for another five years. However, there is no law which prevents a President whose tenure has come to an end or a resigning President from rejoining active politics if he so wishes. The arguments against such a move are purely ethical and of no legal value whatsoever. What the President is not supposed to do, however, is to use the Office of President to do politics, either for or against the opposition or government.
What transpired from the renewal of SAJ’s presidential mandate was the ruling Dr Ramgoolam Labour Party’s ‘alliance’, in all but name, with what is commonly known as the Jugnauth’s MSM Party led by SAJ’s son Pravind Jugnauth who was not even an MP as he was not elected at the 2005 general elections. In the 2nd March 2009 by-election to replace Ashok Jugnauth, an MP whose election was challenged by a Labour candidate and subsequently annulled by the courts for electoral fraud, Ramgoolam’s Labour Party did not even field a Labour candidate in a move to allow the election of Pravind Jugnauth of the MSM (with Labour votes) - a very dangerous gamble indeed. The alliance with the MSM became official before the 2010 general elections in an MLP-MSM-PMSD coalition called « L’Alliance de l’Avenir ». While the MSM only carried less than 5% of the electorate, in another gamble, it was allowed a disproportionate number of candidates at the 2010 general elections and, after the alliance was elected, again, the MSM was given a disproportionate number of ministries, including the Ministries of Finance and Health.
MedPoint « tainted » deal
It did not take long before this ‘unholy’ alliance exploded as MSM Health Minister Maya Hanoomanjee, a relative of the Jugnauth’s, was arrested and provisionally charged by ICAC under the Prevention of Corruption Act for her involvement in the government’s « tainted » purchase of the disused MedPoint Clinic, also called the Jugnauth’s clinic. The arrest of MSM Finance Minister and Leader of the MSM Pravind Jugnauth soon followed as he is the one who authorised the payment of Rs145m, based on an increased valuation from Rs75m. He too was charged under PoCA. All political pressure which was brought to bear on PM Ramgoolam to intervene failed, and all MSM Ministers resigned and the MSM party crossed the floor. The Opposition Leader Paul Bérenger, who originally denounced the MedPoint scandal as the scandal of the century, changed his tune and started to blame PM Ramgoolam. In a press conference, he even accused Ramgoolam of having given instructions to the Government Chief Valuer to conduct a second valuation of the MedPoint disused clinic, upon which the contract was signed. The PM referred the matter to the Police, and the DPP is yet to decide if charges should be brought against Bérenger for diffusing false news.
For his part, President SAJ jumped into the scandal and said « l’ICAC pé fané », which can be interpreted as ICAC being guilty of wrongdoing (or corruption) in pressing charges against SAJ’s son Pravind and relative Maya Hanoomanjee. The contacts between SAJ and Bérenger multiplied for various ‘other’ reasons, while Pravind Jugnauth was beating his breast around the country expressing his confidence in Mauritian judges and challenging ICAC to arrest him (which ICAC ended up doing) and threatening that once he is back in power ICAC would be transformed, if not disbanded like SAJ and PRB previously did to the Economic Crime Office (ECO) when the MMM Minister Jayen Cuttaree was due to be summoned to appear on corruption-related matters.
Although Pravind Jugnauth has appealed against the court’s decision to maintain ICAC’s provisional charges against him, appeal due to be heard in early 2013, the political battle is still being fought. Because he authorised the payment of Rs145m to the owners of MedPoint, the case for conflict of interests appeared quite strong. It is felt that he may be fighting a losing battle, however much confidence he may have expressed in Mauritian judges (through flattery or otherwise), and may merely be using the appeal process as delaying tactics hoping that he will regain power in order to turn the tide in his favour. Although Pravind Jugnauth is quite entitled to use the due process of the law, the strange thing about his appeal is that the charge against him is merely provisional and the DPP had not even had the chance to formally charge him. He is not defending his case. He wants the provisional charge against him cancelled. This is how he has « confidence » in the judges.
As the MMM is pussy-footing on MedPoint, with Reza Uteem of the MMM even withdrawing a Parliamentary question relating to the MedPoint audited Accounts as this would have embarrassed Pravind Jugnauth, it is equally clear that the chances are that a deal must have been struck between Paul Bérenger and Pravind Jugnauth in all but name. The recent announcement by the MMM delegates confirming that a similar deal to that of the September 2000 MedPoint deal was on the cards and that SAJ would lead the MMM-MSM Alliance once more, should not come as a surprise. As expected, this announcement provoked a deluge of criticisms by the Labour Party MPs, including the PM Ramgoolam, against the President SAJ and they invited him to step down.
Although President SAJ did later deny that he had agreed to such a deal with Opposition Leader Paul Bérenger, he took the opportunity of the period of celebrations of independence to level severe criticisms against the government at the Hindu House on Sunday 18th March 2012 as if he were the leader of the Opposition. If he was not doing politics, one wonders what he was doing. Although PM Ramgoolam’s strategies in renewing SAJ’s presidential mandate in 2008 and in forging and alliance with the MSM in 2010 both backfired badly, he should bear in mind that, in the aftermath of the corruption charges brought against Maya Hanoomanjee and Pravind Jugnauth, son of President SAJ, the alliance between the MSM and the MMM has become a desperation for the MSM. Patrick Assirvaden, President of the Labour Party, seems to have hit the nail on the head when he said « La réaction de sir Anerood Jugnauth (SAJ) est celle d’un politicien qui veut sauver son fils » (Défi 19 March 2012). Also, he is laying down the carpet for his son Pravind Jugnauth who Paul Bérenger was supposed to groom to become future PM when the 2000 MedPoint deal was struck but which backfired.
If Mauritians properly analyse what is happening, the chances are that they will not bring an MMM-MSM alliance to power. But, given that the President is above the law, short of setting up a tribunal to look into his behaviour as stated in the Constitution, government politicians should bite the bullet and keep the pressure on him to keep out of politics (or resign) and ensure that his mandate is not renewed again. SAJ appears to have cornered himself into resignation. Mauritius does not need a President. It is a waste of public funds. If the Office of President is to be preserved, let PM Ramgoolam promise the people that the next President will be an apolitical cultured woman rather than a political beast.