Freedom in the World
Mauritius experienced rare political upheaval in 2011, when the Mauritian Socialist Movement (MSM) pulled out of Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam’s governing coalition in July. The moved was sparked by the filing of corruption charges against the health minister, a member of the MSM. The political turmoil deepened in September when MSM leader and former finance minister Pravind Jugnauth, the son of Mauritius’s president, was also charged with corruption.
Mauritius’s ethnically mixed population is primarily descended from immigrants brought as laborers from the Indian subcontinent during the island’s 360 years of Dutch, French, and British colonial rule. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1968, Mauritius has maintained one of the developing world’s most successful democracies.
Navinchandra Ramgoolam served as prime minister from 1995 until 2000, when President Cassam Uteem called early elections, partly in response to a series of corruption scandals. The opposition alliance, led by the Mauritian Socialist Movement (MSM), won the vote, and its leader, former prime minister Anerood Jugnauth, returned to the premiership. In a planned power shift, Paul Bérenger—the leader of the Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM), which was allied with the MSM—took over as prime minister in September 2003, becoming the first person from outside the island’s Indian-origin majority to hold the post. Jugnauth was then elected president.
In the 2005 parliamentary elections, frustration with rising unemployment and inflation following the loss of preferential trade deals resulted in a victory for the opposition Social Alliance, and Ramgoolam returned to power. However, rising prices and increasing levels of crime quickly diminished the popularity of the new government.
In the May 2010 National Assembly elections, Ramgoolam’s Alliance for the Future (AF)—which included his Labour Party, the Mauritian Social Democratic Party (PMSD), and the MSM—captured 45 seats, while Bérenger’s Alliance of the Heart (AH)—a coalition between the MMM, the National Union, and the Mauritanian Socialist Democratic Movement—took 20. Outside observers judged the elections to be free and fair, and Ramgoolam retained the premiership.
In July 2011, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), the anti-graft watchdog, arrested Health Minister Santi Bai Hanoomanjee of the MSM on charges of inflating the government’s bid to purchase a private hospital. In response, all six MSM cabinet ministers—including party leader Pravind Jugnauth, the finance minster and son of Anerood Jugnauth—resigned. On August 7, the MSM pulled out of the governing coalition, leaving Ramgoolam with just a 36 to 33 seat parliamentary majority. Ramgoolam the previous day had named PMSD leader Charles Gaëtan Xavier-Luc Duval finance minister. Further turmoil came in September, when Pravind Jugnauth was arrested by the ICAC on conflict of interest charges related to the hospital bid.
Mauritius is an electoral democracy. Since independence, voters have regularly chosen their representatives in free, fair, and competitive elections. The head of state is a largely ceremonial president elected by the unicameral National Assembly for a five-year term. Executive power resides with the prime minister, who is appointed by the president from the party or coalition with the most seats in the legislature. Of the National Assembly’s 70 members, 62 are directly elected and 8 are appointed from among unsuccessful candidates who gained the largest number of votes; all members serve five-year terms. Decentralized structures govern the country’s small island dependencies. The largest dependency, Rodrigues Island, has its own government and local councils, and two seats in the National Assembly.
The country enjoys a generally positive reputation for transparency and accountability. However, the arrest in 2011 of the two MSM ministers on graft charges has sullied this image somewhat, as have allegations by the MSM that the ICAC is being used as a political tool by the ruling party. A leaked 2008 diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Port Louis, made public in September 2011 by the activist organization WikiLeaks, described corruption in Mauritius as “an often overlooked issue,” and stated that “the country still suffers from a pervasive and ingrained problem” with graft. In a rare display of public discontent, about 3,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Port Louis in early September to protest against corruption and economic inequality. Mauritius was ranked 46 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, and the country has been ranked first in the Ibrahim Index of African Governance since its inception in 2007.
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression. Several private daily and weekly publications criticize both government and opposition politicians and their policies. The state-owned Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation operates radio and television services that generally reflect government viewpoints. A small number of private radio stations have been authorized, but the state-run media hold a monopoly in broadcasting local news. In October 2011, a Supreme Court judge found Dharmanand Dooharika, editor of the private news weekly Samedi Plus, guilty of contempt of court as a result of several articles he had written in 2010 about allegations of bias made by a local businessman against the Supreme Court’s chief justice. Dooharika was sentenced to three months in prison. The court also levied heavy fines against two other news outlets. Internet use is widespread and unrestricted.
Religious and academic freedoms are respected.
Freedoms of assembly and association are honored, though police in past years occasionally used excessive force in response to riots. There are more than 300 unions in Mauritius. Tens of thousands of foreign workers employed in export-processing zones suffer from poor living and working conditions, and employers in the zones are reportedly hostile to unions.
The generally independent judiciary, headed by the Supreme Court, administers a legal system that is an amalgam of French and British traditions. Civil rights are for the most part well respected, though individual cases of police brutality have been reported.
Various ethnic cultures and traditions coexist peacefully, and constitutional prohibitions against discrimination are generally upheld. However, Mauritian Creoles, descendants of African slaves who comprise about a third of the population, live in poverty and are culturally and economically marginalized. Tensions between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority persist, constituting one of the country’s few potential ethnic flashpoints. In November 2011, the Truth and Justice Commission—established to examine the country’s history of slavery and indentured labor—released its report. The report recommended steps to encourage national reconciliation, including a slavery memorial and the promotion of a more equitable society through increased economic and political participation by non-Hindu Mauritians. Chagos Islanders—resettled in Mauritius after being evicted by the British in the 1960s to make room for a military base—have not been integrated into society and suffer from high levels of unemployment.
Women comprise about 36 percent of the labor force, but they receive less compensation than men for similar work and generally occupy a subordinate role in society. However, they enjoy equal access to public services and education, and currently hold 13 seats in the National Assembly. Rape and domestic violence against women are major concerns.