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Mauritius enjoyed a relatively tranquil year in 2001 in political terms, although several corruption scandals did attract considerable notice. General elections were held in late 2000. Opposition leader Anerood Jugnauth, a former prime minister and the leader of the Mauritian Socialist Movement (MSM), won a resounding victory and returned to the premiership.
Mauritius, which has no indigenous peoples, was seized and settled as a way station for European trade to the East Indies and India. Its ethnically mixed population is primarily descended from Indian subcontinental immigrants who were brought to the island as laborers during its 360 years of Dutch, French, and British colonial administration. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1968, Mauritius has maintained one of the developing world's most successful democracies. In 1993, the island became a republic within the Commonwealth, with a largely ceremonial president as head of state.
Mauritius has achieved a stable democratic and constitutional order, and its focus on political competition rather than violent conflict demonstrates a level of political development enjoyed by few other African states. The political process is used to maintain ethnic balance and economic growth rather than dominance by any single group. In addition, political parties are not divided along the lines of the country's diverse ethnicities and religions.
The country's political stability is underpinned by steady economic growth and improvements in the island's infrastructure and standard of living. Unemployment and crime are rising, but the country's integrated, multinational population has provided a capable and reliable workforce that, along with preferential European and U.S. market access for sugar and garment exports, is attracting foreign investment. Economic development has been achieved, however, at the cost of the country's native forest and fauna, nearly all of which have been destroyed.
Citizens have the right to change their government democratically. The head of state is a president, elected by the national assembly for a five-year term. Executive power resides in the prime minister. The legislature is unicameral; its sole chamber, the national assembly, has 62 members directly elected by universal adult suffrage and a maximum of 8 (currently 4) members appointed from unsuccessful parliamentary candidates who gained the largest number of votes. The members serve for a five-year term.
In a surprise move, in August 2000 President Cassam Uteem dissolved the national assembly and called early elections in August, in large part because of a series of corruption scandals that had led to the resignation of several cabinet ministers. In the elections, the victorious opposition alliance led by the MSM was allied with the Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM). The MMM's leader, Paul Berenger, was subsequently appointed minister of finance. Some 80 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. The previous incumbent had served since 1992.
Since independence, Mauritius has regularly chosen its representatives in free, fair, and competitive elections. Decentralized structures govern the country's island dependencies. The largest of these is Rodrigues Island, which has its own government, local councils, and two seats in the national assembly.
The generally independent judiciary is headed by a supreme court. The legal system is an amalgam of French and British traditions. Civil rights are generally well respected, although cases of police brutality have been reported. Freedom of religion is respected. There are no known political prisoners or reports of political or extrajudicial killings.
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression and of the press, but all broadcast media are state-owned and usually reflect government views. Several private daily and weekly publications, however, are often highly critical of both government and opposition politicians and their policies. Freedom of assembly and association is respected, although police occasionally refuse to issue permits for demonstrations. Numerous nongovernmental organizations operate.
Nine labor federations include 300 unions. Women constitute approximately 20 percent of the paid labor force and generally occupy a subordinate role in society. The law does not require equal pay for equal work or prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace. Women are underrepresented at the national university. The country is preparing a national gender action plan with the long-term objective of greater equality. It addresses the integration of gender issues into the mainstream of government and private sector activities, and the enactment of a domestic violence act.
Women are significantly underrepresented in the nation's political life. According to the Southern African Development Community, in 2000 the percentages of women in parliament and in the cabinet (5.9 percent and 4 percent respectively) were the lowest of the 14 member countries.