Ethnicity key factor in Mauritius vote

04 May 2010 - 11:45 By Sapa-AFP

Some 900,000 Mauritians go to the polls on Wednesday, but some would-be candidates have already been disqualified for having refused to declare their ethnic background.

The country, officially divided into four ethnic groups: Hindus, Muslims, Chinese, and the remaining "general population", has nearly always had a prime minister from the Hindu majority.

Prospective candidates are required by the constitution to declare their ethnicity, and this year 104 refused to do so, resulting in their candidacies being rejected.

Some 529 candidates are running, as Mauritians will vote for 62 deputies from the Indian Ocean state's two main parties, both headed by veteran politicians and both with similar platforms.

The Social Alliance is led by Hindu Navin Chandra Ramgoolam, 63, prime minister since 2005, and the Mauritius Militant Movement is headed by Paul Berenger, 65, from the general population.

The only time the prime minister has not been a member of the majority Hindus was when Berenger took the post after an electoral agreement. He served between 2003 and 2005.

"These elections will show that all Mauritians, whatever their ethnic origin or culture, can aspire to become prime minister on the basis of meritocracy," Berenger said at the weekend.

"At stake in these general elections is choosing who will become prime minister for the next five years", Ramgoolam told thousands of supporters at Quatre Bornes, in the centre of the island.

No opinion polls have been carried out to gauge the voting intentions of Mauritians.

Some 130 foreign observers, including some from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community, are on the island to monitor the election process.

"We hope they take into account the partisan way state television has made sure the electoral campaign has been covered", Berenger said on Monday.

Since independence from Britain in 1968, Mauritius has forged a solid democracy and sustained economic growth, making its 1.2 million inhabitants among the richest in Africa, with an annual revenue per person of 6,431 dollars.

This will be the ninth election in the main island of Mauritius and the adjoining islet of Rodrigues since independence.