LALIT members and supporters have been celebrating the victory of our three-year campaign to bring back Village Elections and Village Councils. Rural people all over the country have been, too.
The new Parti Travayist Government, under pressure from rural people and as a direct result of Lalit's grassroots political campaign, has passed a law repealing the anti-democratic laws passed by the previous Government.
Village Councils, a local-level democracy which was first won in 1952 after mass rebellions in the countryside during the economic crisis of the 1940's, was totally dismantled by the last Government in 2002. This MSM-MMM-PMSD government postponed any regional elections in rural areas for three consecutive years, and abolished Village Elections and Village Councils altogether.
They brought in a Bill, which after Lalit's initial campaign amongst Village Councillors, was drastically amended. For example, the MSM-MMM Government at the time amended its own Bill to remove a bit about appointed Comite Quartier, to replace Village Councils. They also removed another bit about the President of the Republic having the power to wipe out any new-style "municipality" for any reason. However, the Bill still maintained the abolition of Village Councils. The law was voted, but had not yet proclaimed, and it was to have "replaced" all the Village Councils with WTO-compatible more centralized, bureaucratized institutions that could have been run by the two or three big parties and not by the neighbourhood-level groups, teams and parties, as is the practise until now. The MSM-MMM then kept nominating new members - mainly their party agents - to the expired Village Councils as the elected members resigned, one after the other. It was then that everyone saw the reason for the centralization: the Government wanted to push through changes in where roads went to make way for big hotel projects and to get through big Integrated Resort Scheme projects, without any democratic consultations.
At the time, the Parti Travayist that was Parliamentary Opposition, had only a very cool, formalistic resistance to the law. When a Lalit member was delegated to approach the then Opposition, they actually refused to run a campaign against the abolition of Village Elections, confessing that the new system would "benefit their party". So Lalit was the only political force to campaign. And campaign we did. It was only after pressure from the people of the countryside that, during the electoral campaign in order to gain support, that Labour included this measure in their program.
Lalit's campaign had a number of prongs. We sent a letter each to the 1,500 elected Village Councillors, calling for them to take stands against the Bill. Many did. And we called on them to resign, as a sign of respecting their popular mandate. Some whole councils did, and many individual councillors. We also sent a letter to each of the over 2,500 who were defeated candidates in the last Village Elections of 1997. Then we went to meet councillors and candidates individually, and as whole councils. We actually met councillors for formal sessions in about three-quarters of all villages in the country, and had formal assemblies with some 23 villagers. We also distributed leaflets (ome 10,000) nation-wide. We sent letters to the Press and held Press conferences. We had a long polemic with Gilbert Ahnee who chided us for thinking the government would ever be so dastardly as to postpone elections more than once. He also showed that he had no idea what village democracy means to people in rural areas. He described it with arrogance as "folklorique". He, like many intellectuals in the country, fail to see that the democracy people actually want is a process, and not just a little show. What they often don't understand is that prior to Village Elections, which used until recently to be every THREE years, some three or four groups, teams, local parties are formed. And this involves dozens and dozens of people, mainly young people, in conceptualizing their village. The process of preparing a program - most teams or groups have programs - involves a long process of discussions that both nurture the intelligence of people, and foster a unity along programmatic lines, cutting across the distructive forces of communalo-religious groupings. Women are often group leaders and Village Council Presidents. And public meetings see literally dozens of orators learning to speak in a formal, political register into a microphone. People by the dozen learn how to plan and run public meetings, private meetings, how to distribute programs, how to work on polling and counting day. And it is all voluntary work. A veritable university for every one of us in villages.
The fact that successive governments had reduced the powers of Village Councils and starved them of funds, is not a reason to do away with them. It is a reason, in Lalit we say, to give them more funds and all the power they need to take decisions about the village.
In Lalit, we go further. We say that it is urban people, especially the urban poor and working class people, who have, up to now, remained deprived of this kind of democracy. We are campaigning right now for the setting up of Ward Councils. This will already be very easy, because voting is done by Ward already (six in Port Louis, four in BB-Rose-Hill, and three in Curepipe, Q Bornes and Vacoas-Phoenix). These War Councils should have the power necessary to organize life in the Ward, as well as a budget that they dispose of. Elections should be every three years.
Taken together with our Program for an Alternativ Political Economy (after sugar and textiles), the contents of this brief article give an idea of Lalit's program for the coming Municipal and Village Elections.