No alternatives
New Labour�s historic third term in office will again be led by a prime minister who has lost the trust of his people. It reflects the dire state of politics not only in Britain but everywhere.

By Diren Valayden
Published May 10th 2005 in L'Express

Branded a liar by the Conservatives and distrusted by a large section of the population, it is amazing that Tony Blair will again lead his country. All the mud-slinging has not prevented the Prime Minister from winning a third mandate from the electorate. Even if the war in Iraq came back to haunt him in the final ten days of the campaign, the momentum was enough to secure a majority (albeit a decreased one) in Parliament. What this shows is perfectly the same syndrome that afflicts Mauritian politics at present: a lack of alternatives.

When the people are called to choose a government on the 3rd of July, the choice will be simple. They will have to choose between the current government for a second term, which will be equally historical for the MMM, or they can hand the reigns of power to the Social Alliance. The incumbent’s popularity has nose-dived throughout its mandate only to recover dramatically after the budget. But if the population wants change, is the razzmatazz of parties on the other side a real alternative? Or are they pretty much the same but dressed differently?

This question plagues politics across the world. The alternatives are in fact as untrustworthy, corrupt, bereft of ideas, or incompetent as those in power. In Ireland, the nineties saw a series of corruption charges made against politicians. If Fianna Fail, the current party in power, suffered the worst damage, it was not to say that politicians from the other parties were completely clean. Tax evasion, corruption and unethical behaviour were equally at ease in the opposition. But Ireland’s electoral system of proportional representation at least gives the opposition parties’ candidates and independents a chance to be elected to parliament.

In Britain, and equally in Mauritius, the first-past-the-post system does not make any allowance for an equal distribution of votes. This time, despite New Labour winning 36% of the national vote, they will occupy 57% of seats in the House of Commons, while the Conservatives, with 33% of votes get 32% of seats ( a rare occasion when the vote tally matches the number of elected candidates). The Liberal Democrats are the ones who must feel hard done to. With 23% of votes across the country, they will occupy only 62 seats, an 8% representation in parliament.

However, the Liberal Democrats do not represent so much as an alternative to New Labour, the only area of policy where they differed being the war in Iraq. Distant wars do not usually rank very high among voters’ concerns. National policies are where elections are won and Blair’s commitment towards the public service proved to be decisive eventually. But it is also the blatant lack of alternatives that tipped the balance in New Labour’s favour. The Liberal Democrats’ slogan of ‘The Real Alternative’ did not catch the public’s imagination except among anti-war idealists.

Lack of trust in politicians

In 2004, a global survey conducted by Gallup International for the World Economic Forum, and claiming to represent the views of 1.2 billion people in more than 60 countries cast an interesting light on how people think of their politicians. 63% of those interviewed think their politicians are dishonest, 60% say they have too much power and 52% saw them as unethical. This is an across the board distrust in those we are asked to elect and serve our interests. Another poll by the BBC in March this year, found that 73% of people found politicians dishonest, while 87% said they did not deliver on their promises 92% said they never gave “a straight answer”.

A majority of people now think that politicians are disconnected from their everyday concerns. It becomes a vicious circle, where the political class then has to devise marketing strategies (winning formulas, democratisation of the economy etc.) to win votes. Power becomes an end in itself for politicians and the alternatives disappear in front of the people as the politicians play the same game to be elected.

Negligible contribution

New Labour’s victory is a well-timed reminder of this paucity of ideas in politics. The same applies on the Continent. In 1994, when the corrupt centre left government in Italy was removed from power, it was replaced by a group led by Silvio Berlusconi. Soon, his administration was also mired in scandal. The French political class is notorious for corruption, from left to right, across the ideological divide. The old adage that politicians are all the same, though very cynical, can sometimes ring very true.

In Mauritius, the situation is not much better for the population. We are always offered a cocktail of the same three main parties to choose from. The other satellites that complete the different alliances are most often breakaway parties seeking a quick route to power. Their worth to the big three is purely based on their religious and caste contribution. It would be delusional to think that they bring any sort of new ideas to their elder partners. In fact our politics involve a lot of prostitution, different parties trying to find a client alliance willing to buy their vote contribution. This leaves us to choose to between a rock and a hard place to position ourselves. Whether it is the MSM/MMM block or the Social Alliance, the ideas are not radically different. As for the other small parties, their contribution has been negligible up to now.

But what is worrying is the paucity of alternatives among the political class. We are left to choose between political dynasties. Bearing the name of a politician patriarch is seemingly enough for a place on the ballot. Those without a connection to the political elite depressingly follow like sheep. We do not trust them, but sadly they are our only choice to date.