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Color, contradictions mark run-up to Mauritius elections

PORT LOUIS, Mauritius (AP) -- The crowd of Indian, African and mixed background cheered as the tall European with a shock of white hair declared his party would form the next government of Mauritius, one of Africa's few success stories.

"We are going to win," Paul Berenger, the aging leader of a once staunchly Marxist party, exclaimed in Creole as campaigning entered the final stretch for Monday's general elections.

The scene epitomized politics and society in the Indian Ocean island that likes to call itself the Rainbow Nation -- colorful, multiracial and just a little contradictory.

Although it lies 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) east of the continent, Mauritius is an African country. Hindu migrants from India account for 51 percent of the population of 1.1 million, Muslims from India 18 percent and Creoles, descendants of African slaves and Dutch and French colonists, about 27 percent. The rest are Chinese or, like Berenger, Franco-Mauritians.

Britain was the colonial power from 1815 to independence in 1968, and English is the official language, but it is only spoken out of necessity. Everyone speaks Creole which stems from French rule from 1725 to 1815.

Thanks to sugar, textiles, tourism and harmony, Mauritius has developed into one of Africa's most prosperous nations whose per capita annual income of $3,600 is 10 times that of most continental African nations.

It is also one of the most peaceful.

On Monday, Mauritians will elect a 62-member parliament from 43 parties fielding 535 candidates in 20 constituencies.

If any ethnic community is proportionally underrepresented, "best losers" will become nominated legislators.

A Western diplomat said there was no fear of election fraud in Mauritius, which he called an example to the rest of the continent in terms of economic policies and a smoothly functioning democracy.

The streets of the stately capital, Port Louis, are festooned with flags and banners, and loudspeakers blast campaign messages from pickup trucks. But the electioneering is decidedly low-key, and to keep things that way, the sale of alcohol has been banned throughout the island from Sunday through Tuesday when results are expected.

Nevertheless, politics in Mauritius are anything but simple. The nation has a history of coalition governments that often fall apart midway through their five-year terms. The same protagonists continue to compete for the post of prime minister.

Monday's poll, seen by observers as the closest in years, will ultimately be a contest between the incumbent Labor Party-Parti Mauricien Sociale Democrate coalition and the alliance between Berenger's Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) and the Mouvement Socialiste Mauricien (MSM) led by former prime minister Sir Anerood Jugnauth. Berenger has been in failed coalitions with both Labor Party leader and Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam and Jugnauth before.

The outgoing government has promised to create 70,000 jobs over the next five years, reduce the price of beer and soft drinks, raise civil servants' wages and extend the lease of government-owned land to small-scale sugarcane planters from 10 to 99 years.

The MMM-MSM coalition is hammering away at high-level corruption and says it will create 70,000 jobs over the next seven years.

But no matter who wins, there are unlikely to be any major changes since Mauritian politicians know better than to upset the status quo.

"It's a question of personalities," said political commentator Soondress Cadervaloo. "Mauritians do not vote for issues but for people. It's only when they're elected, they (Mauritians) start questioning them (the leaders). During the last 10 years all the major political parties have come together on economic and social policies."

(ae/sl)

Copyright 2000 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



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