Freedom in the World
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Parliamentary elections in 2005 resulted in the defeat of Prime Minister Paul Berenger and a victory by the opposition Social Alliance, led by former prime minister Dr. Navinchandra Ramgoolam. Key issues that apparently led to Berenger's loss included growing frustration with rising unemployment and inflation in the wake of the loss of preferential trade deals with the United States and the European Union.
Mauritius's ethnically mixed population is primarily descended from immigrants from the Indian subcontinent 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 1992, the island became a republic within the Commonwealth, with a president as head of state.
In August 2000, President Cassam Uteem dissolved the National Assembly and called early elections, in large part because of a series of corruption scandals that had led to the resignation of several cabinet ministers. Some 80 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. Navinchandra Ramgoolam, the outgoing prime minister, had served since 1995. The opposition alliance, led by the Mauritian Militant Movement (MSM), won the elections. Its leader, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, returned to the prime minister's office, a position he had previously held between 1982 and 1995. The MSM is allied with the Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM).
In a planned power shift, Paul Berenger, leader of the MMM, assumed the prime minister's position in September 2003, becoming the first person from outside of the island's Indian-origin majority to hold the post. As part of the same pact, former prime minister Jugnauth moved to the largely symbolic presidency.
Although Mauritius was generally peaceful throughout 2004, hundreds of civil servants stormed a government building in August to protest a decision to set up a body to oversee revenue collection. The demonstrators feared that this oversight action would lead to the retrenchment of 2,000 civil servants. The country's economy continued to grow steadily throughout the year. On the international front, Berenger threatened to pull the country out of the Commonwealth because of a dispute with Britain over the sovereignty of the Chacos Islands, which include the strategically important island of Diego Garcia.
In the July 2005 parliamentary elections, Ramgoolam's Social Alliance coalition defeated the incumbent MMM-MSM, and Ramgoolam became prime minister. International and local observers judged the vote to have been free and fair. The newly elected Social Alliance coalition, which includes the Labor Party and the Mauritian Party, draws most of its support from the majority ethnic Indians. Municipal elections in October 2005 further cemented the Social Alliance's hold on power.
Mauritius has achieved a level of political development enjoyed by few other African states. For years, the country's political stability was underpinned by generally steady economic growth and improvements in the island's infrastructure and standard of living, while the country's integrated, multinational population has provided a capable and reliable workforce. However, the loss of preferential European and U.S. market access for sugar and garment exports has recently begun to adversely affect the country's economy and to result in rising inflation and unemployment. The World Bank estimates that gross domestic product growth in 2005 will slow to 3.8 from 4.2 percent in 2004. Ramgoolam has stated that he wants to resurrect the trade agreements that gave preference to Mauritian exports.
Citizens of Mauritius can change their government demo-cratically. The head of state is a president elected by the National Assembly for a five-year term. Executive power resides in the prime minister, who is appointed by the president from the party or coalition with the highest number of seats in parliament. The political party or alliance that has the second largest majority forms the official opposition. The National Assembly is unicameral; it has 62 members who are 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. National Assembly members serve for a five-year term, and the next elections are due in 2010.
Since independence, Mauritius has regularly chosen its representatives in free, fair, and competitive elections. In 2002, the National Assembly appointed two separate committees to examine recommendations submitted by a constitutional and electoral reform commission. In 2003, constitutional amendments that modestly strengthened presidential powers were adopted; these deal with the duties of the president, the appointment of the president and members of the electoral commission, the dissolution of the National Assembly, and the exercise of the prerogative of clemency. 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.
In recent years, there have been a number of corruption cases, and recent efforts to market Mauritius as an international financial center have been impeded by a number of domestic banking market scandals. Mauritius was ranked 51 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression, and several private daily and weekly publications are often highly critical of both government and opposition politicians and their policies. The state-owned Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) operates radio and television services and generally reflects government viewpoints. A small number of private radio stations have been authorized, but the state-run media enjoy a monopoly in broadcasting local news. A special committee chaired by Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam has been set up to review the Independent Broadcasting Act. After the prime minister criticized private radio stations, stating that they should be more responsible, the government asked the Independent Broadcasting Authority to implement measures to control the radio stations.
Freedom of religion is respected, as is academic freedom.
The rights to freedom of assembly and association are respected, although police occasionally refuse to issue permits for demonstrations. Numerous nongovernmental organizations operate. Nine labor federations include 300 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 generally well respected, although cases of police brutality have been reported. There are no known political prisoners, reports of political or extrajudicial killings, or significant criticisms of prison conditions.
Various cultures and traditions flourish in peace, and there is general respect for constitutional prohibitions against discrimination. However, Mauritian Creoles, descendents of African slaves who comprise approximately a third of the population, live in poverty and complain of discrimination. In addition, tensions between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority persist, constituting one of the country's few potential political flashpoints.
Women constitute approximately 20 percent of the paid labor force and generally occupy a subordinate role in society. Domestic violence against women, particularly spousal abuse, has continued to be a major problem. In 1997, Mauritius became the first country in the region to pass a Protection from Domestic Violence Act. Mauritius has succeeded in increasing the percentage of women in the National Assembly, from 5.5 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in the current parliament. Only 5 percent of women occupy senior positions in the 100 top companies.