Port Louis, Mauritius – With its open and critical press and active political culture, the tiny paradisiacal island of Mauritius has long been one of the region’s most vibrant democracies.
But this liveliness has reached an all new level since a new government surprisingly swept into power in December, and allegations of conspiracy, money-laundering, and cronyism under the old leadership have unfolded in public like a political soap opera.
Almost every day, Mauritians have been treated to fresh intrigue as former top officials are questioned over lucrative government deals, piles of cash found at the homes of senior figures are counted by police, and allegedly illicit foreign bank accounts are traced.
Mauritius – a tiny Indian Ocean island about 2,000km off East Africa’s coast – has enjoyed occasional corruption scandals in the past, but there is a feeling that this time Pandora’s Box has truly been smashed open leaving no one safe.
The allegations have been widespread, encompassing a number of Mauritian big men, but at the centre of much of the controversy is Navin Ramgoolam, 67, who has experienced the mightiest of falls from grace.
At the start of December 2014, Ramgoolam’s future could barely have looked more rosy.
People want a more meritocratic society and are less willing to accept the status quo.
As the country’s prime minister since 2005 – as well as having served a term from 1995-2000 – he called early elections for December 10.
As part of a new coalition, Ramgoolam was widely expected to run away with the victory, with some even suggesting the coalition might win every single seat in parliament. The plan after the polls was to change the constitution to confer more powers on the presidency, for which Ramgoolam would then run in turn.
However, the public turned sharply against the incumbent, leading the opposition Alliance Lepep to victory in a landslide. Ramgoolam even lost his own parliamentary seat and, a week later, was replaced by 84-year-old Anerood Jugnauth, who returned to the premiership for his sixth term since 1982.
But this was just the start of Ramgoolam’s demise. In February, he was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy and money-laundering. The former prime minister was accused of having made a false statement regarding a robbery at his beach property in 2011, while the police who searched his home discovered coffers packed with $6.4 million in cash – much of it in foreign currency.
Ramgoolam protested his innocence, claiming the money was from legitimate donations to his Labour party.
This first domino, however, led to more dramatic events, which followed in quick succession. Former Bank of Mauritius Governor Rundheersing Bheenick was arrested with cash and confidential documents found at his house.
Allegations surfaced that Ramgoolam’s close associate Nandanee Soornack – who fled to Italy with 12 suitcases after the results of the election became clear – had received preferential treatment in government contracts. And two FBI agents were flown in to help follow the Ramgoolam money trail.
If a week is a long time in politics, then the last few months must have felt like several lifetimes to the former prime minister, for whom formal hearings have recently commenced.
The arrest of a former prime minister is unprecedented in Mauritius. Since independence from Britain in 1968, the island’s political culture has relied heavily on rotating alliances among a tight-knit political class, and when leaders are defeated, they have typically launched comeback after comeback.
Jugnauth’s party, for instance, has been allied with Ramgoolam’s in a number of previous elections, while Jugnauth himself has been in and out of power for more than three decades.
“One of the reasons there has been stability in Mauritius is that, at least until now, no one was ever totally out the game,” political analyst Jocelyn Chan Low told Al Jazeera. “You lose an election but then you return. It’s musical chairs – one day you’re in, one day you’re out.”
According to some commentators, this carousel-like system has made politicians reluctant to challenge one another, especially on issues in which all parties may be implicated. After his arrest, for example, Ramgoolam warned ominously, “when you live in glass houses, you do not throw stones”.
As Chan Low pointed out, “There has long been a public feeling that there is a tacit understanding among the political class that they really know what was happening around clientalism and crony capitalism, but still it continued.”
What changed in this landscape is difficult to say. Some suggest the Jugnauth government’s decision to pursue Ramgoolam was the result of political animosities that finally bubbled over.
While giving some credence to this reading, Manchester University anthropologist Sean Carey also emphasised the shifting nature of Mauritian society more broadly.
“Five or 10 years ago, this wouldn’t happened,” he said. “The scandals would have been kept under the carpet. But there are ever growing internal pressures from the likes of graduates and the middle classes. Also, as Mauritius becomes more engaged with the world, there is the notion that the rules by which we previously lived are challengeable. People want a more meritocratic society and are less willing to accept the status quo.”
What will come of Ramgoolam’s case and the other scandals remains to be seen. The cases are likely to be ongoing for some time, but although there have been concerns about police leaks and counter-allegations of an organised conspiracy against the former prime minister, most here trust in Mauritius’ independent judiciary to ensure a fair trial.
However, there is a sense that regardless of the outcome, this has already been a watershed moment in Mauritian politics.
‘Walk the talk’
In its election campaigns, the Alliance Lepep, led by the Militant Socialist Movement (MSM), had called for greater anti-corruption measures.
Krishna Athal, a member of the MSM executive committee, spoke to Al Jazeera in his own capacity about Ramgoolam’s arrest, and said it was “likely to be the last thing anyone expected to happen”.
“It has definitely given the impression that the government wants to walk the talk of change they were so vehemently advocating for prior to winning the elections,” Athal said.
Many hope the kind of corruption that had been tacitly accepted for so long may be addressed in a more substantive way than before. And it is also notable that the Labour party, which Ramgoolam led for more than two decades, has also been quick to join calls for greater scrutiny of political finances.
Indeed, on this small but densely populated island of 1.6 million people, with its well-educated population and bold media, there are few places to hide.
On the one hand, this could mean the repercussions of these scandals could easily spill over into other sectors, such as Mauritius’ financial offshore sector, or lead to the discovery of skeletons in the Alliance Lepep’s own closet.
But on the other hand, most Mauritians now hope this public airing of dirty political laundry will usher in a new era of greater regulation and scrutiny.
“This is only the beginning and the present government will have to be very careful,” Chan Low said. “They have set a precedent and if they do not deliver, you can be sure the Mauritian people judge them on it and throw them out.”
Follow James Wan on Twitter: @jamesjwan