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Republic of Mauritius

Republic of Mauritius

Type of Government

An isolated island in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar, Mauritius is a constitutional republic with an unusual legislative structure and a vibrant multiparty system.

Background

Mauritius is a small country, roughly two-thirds the size of Rhode Island. Its stable, democratic government and steady economic growth have made it one of postcolonial Africa’s greatest success stories. The country’s history begins in 1598, when the Dutch founded a small and ultimately unsuccessful settlement on the previously uninhabited island they called Mauritius. By the time the French arrived in 1715, it was again uninhabited, as the last Dutch settlers had departed several years earlier. Renamed the Ile de France, Mauritius remained in French hands for a century, eventually passing to the British in 1814 under the Treaty of Paris. In 1835 British administrators abolished the slave trade that had brought tens of thousands of Africans to the island for work on French and British sugarcane plantations. Faced with an impending labor shortage, the British began to import indentured servants from Asia, particularly from the Indian subcontinent. Most were Hindus, who now form the largest ethnic group on the island. The next largest group is the Creoles, who trace their ancestry back in varying degrees to the slave population. There are also sizeable communities of Indian Muslims and Chinese, as well as a very small, mostly French-speaking elite. All of these groups are politically active today, and several political parties are based primarily on ethnic ties.

Mauritius’s isolated location ensured a high degree of local autonomy under colonial rule, with a Legislative Assembly in existence as early as 1947. Full independence came in 1968. Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (1900–1985), leader of the Mauritius Labor Party, served as the nation’s first prime minister.

Government Structure

The 1968 constitution provides for a strong executive branch. Both the president, who serves as chief of state, and the vice president are elected by majority vote of the National Assembly for a maximum of two five-year terms. The president then appoints a prime minister to serve as the head of government. In theory, there are no restrictions on the president’s choice; by tradition, however, the leader of the largest bloc in the Assembly is chosen. The other members of the cabinet, known as the Council of Ministers, are also presidential appointees, though the president’s choices here are made only after consultations with the new prime minister.

Legislative powers are vested in a unicameral National Assembly of seventy members, sixty-two of whom are elected by direct, popular vote for five-year terms. The main island (also known as Mauritius) is divided into twenty regional constituencies, each of which sends three members to the Assembly. The outlying island of Rodrigues comprises the twenty-first constituency; it sends two members. The remaining eight seats are allocated to various underrepresented ethnic groups under a complex system administered by the Electoral Supervisory Commission. All bills passed by the legislature must be signed by the president to become law. If the president refuses, he or she must resign. Proposed amendments to the constitution require a special three-quarters majority.

Though the structure of the Mauritian legal system is based closely on the British model, its legal code draws heavily on the Napoleonic Code of nineteenth-century France. At the top of the legal structure is a Supreme Court of eleven judges, one of whom, the chief justice, is appointed by the president after consultation with the prime minister. Assisting the chief justice is the senior puisne (a French legal term meaning “junior”) judge, whom the president appoints on the chief justice’s recommendation. The other nine puisne judges are appointed by the president on the recommendation of the Judicial and Legal Service Commission. In contrast to the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices enjoy lifetime appointments, Supreme Court justices in Mauritius face mandatory retirement at the age of sixty-two.

The primary appeals courts, the Court of Criminal Appeal and the Court of Civil Appeal, are divisions of the Supreme Court. Other venues include an Intermediate Court, which handles serious civil and criminal matters, ten district courts, and several specialized tribunals. Ordinarily, the Supreme Court serves as the court of last appeal. In rare circumstances, however, decisions of the Supreme Court may be appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, a London-based, three-member panel empowered to hear cases from a variety of former British colonies.

For administrative purposes, Mauritius is divided into nine administrative districts and three offshore dependencies. A variety of elected councils (city, town, village, or rural district) handle local affairs.

Political Parties and Factions

As of the 2005 elections, the single largest bloc in the National Assembly was the Social Alliance (SA), a coalition dominated by the Mauritian Labor Party (MLP) and the Mauritian Social Democrat Party (PMSD); it controlled forty-two of the seventy seats. The MLP’s leader, Navinchandra Ramgoolam (1947–), the son of the first prime minister), was elected prime minister. The second largest bloc, with twenty-four seats, was a coalition of the Militant Socialist Movement (MSM) and the Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM). The MSM’s leader, Pravind Jugnauth (1961–), is the son of the president, Anerood Jugnauth (1930–). The Jugnauth and Ramgoolam dynasties illustrate the extent to which a small group of mostly Hindu families continues to dominate the island’s politics.

The four seats not controlled by the two major coalitions are held by the Organization of the People of Rodrigues (OPR), a regional, heavily Creole group based on the outlying island of Rodrigues. Of the parties that failed to win seats in the 2005 election, the most significant and controversial is the conservative Muslim group Hezbollah (Arabic for “Party of God”). Unrelated to the Lebanon-based organization of the same name, the Mauritian Hezbollah is strongest in poor Muslim neighborhoods victimized by drug traffickers. In keeping with the strictest interpretations of traditional Islamic law, or sharia, Hezbollah advocates the imposition of the death penalty for those convicted of selling or distributing illegal substances. There is strong evidence that Hezbollah has occasionally taken violent action against drug traffickers without the knowledge or approval of authorities. Though most Mauritians condemn such behavior as vigilantism, many supporters of Hezbollah argue, with some justification, that certain members of the government have close ties to the criminal networks that control drug trafficking. To rely on the government to protect the public from traffickers is in their view naive and counterproductive. Debate on this point continues. What is clear, however, is the growing alienation of many in the Muslim community. Drug addicts and Hezbollah activists alike are convinced that the Hindu-dominated government cares little for Muslims and will never grant them their rightful share in the so-called “Mauritian miracle” of sustained economic and social development.

Major Events

Like the Muslims with whom they have close ties, the Creoles continue to struggle with poverty and unemployment. Though all communities have benefited to some extent from the island’s sustained economic growth, the distribution of good jobs, adequate housing, and other dividends has been uneven. The reasons for this discrepancy are complex, but racism is certainly a factor. This was the context for the nation’s worst incident of civil strife since independence. In February 1999, Kaya (born Joseph Reginald Topize, c. 1960), a popular singer of Creole ancestry, died in police custody following his arrest on a minor drug charge. The circumstances of his death were highly suspicious, and many Mauritians, Creoles and non-Creoles alike, believe police officers beat him to death. News of his death sparked three days of riots across the capital city of Port Louis. Eleven people were killed, including another popular Creole singer, and dozens of businesses looted or destroyed. The city quickly recovered, but Creole frustrations remain, and there has been little sign of reform within the police department.

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government charged that banks registered in Mauritius had laundered money for al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Like many island nations, Mauritius is a center of the largely unregulated offshore banking industry, the practices of which are often of questionable legality. As Mauritius has more than nine thousand of these enterprises, the U.S. charge was plausible, and the existence of the militant Hezbollah organization did little to allay fears. In the years since, however, the United States has found the Mauritian authorities to be energetic allies in the war on terror, particularly after the 2002 passage of a stringent antiterrorism bill, and a recent report by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency downplays the role of Mauritian banks in the funding of terror networks.

Twenty-First Century

Mauritius has undergone a remarkable socioeconomic transformation since independence. In 1968 more than eighty percent of the island’s economy depended on the highly variable prices of the international sugar market. While sugarcane is still a major export, the agricultural sector as a whole provides only about five percent of the nation’s gross domestic product and less than fourteen percent of its jobs. The tourism, textile, technology, and banking industries, meanwhile, have enjoyed decades of almost uninterrupted growth. The tax revenues generated by these new industries have made possible an ambitious program of state-funded social services, particularly health care. The result has been a dramatic decrease in infant mortality and a corresponding increase in life expectancy. Mauritius now boasts one of the highest life expectancies in Africa (sixty-nine years for men, seventy-six for women). The literacy rate of roughly 84 percent is also one of the highest in the region.

Continued progress is not assured, however. Like sugarcane, tourism is an unstable industry. The growth of tourism in Mauritius has been interrupted several times, notably by international news reports of the 1999 riots. In each case, the industry quickly recovered. Every reported incident of civil unrest, however, has the potential to cause a prolonged slowdown. In addition, the increasingly rapid deterioration of the island’s coral reefs threatens fishing and scuba diving, two of the island’s major attractions for foreign tourists.

The largest problem, however, is economic inequality. Ironically, this is in part a result of Mauritius’ success. If the economy were still dependent on labor-intensive sugarcane production, as it was in 1968, poverty would be much more widespread among all ethnic groups. As it is, however, the highly visible success of individual entrepreneurs, most from the Hindu community, emphasizes the poverty that continues to afflict the Muslim and Creole populations. While the government’s distinctive method of allocating Assembly seats has increased the political participation of these two historically underrepresented groups, integrating them into the new Mauritian economy may prove more difficult.

Boswell, Rosabelle. Le Malaise Créole: Ethnic Identity in Mauritius . New York: Berghahn Books, 2006.

Republic of Mauritius. “Government Web Portal.” (accessed June 30, 2007).

Sacerdoti, Emilio. Mauritius: Challenges of Sustained Growth . Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund, 2005.

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