Mauritius votes over presidency, economy

Mauritius votes over presidency, economy

PORT LOUIS, Mauritius - Mauritians voted Wednesday in parliamentary elections with rival parties promising to boost the economy and battling over the proposed strengthening of presidential powers.

The issue of constitutional reform makes the polls some of the most important since the Indian Ocean nation gained independence from Britain in 1968.

Polling stations on the main island for some 936,000 voters opened at 7:00 am (0300 GMT), and will close at 6:00 pm (1500 GMT).

"Everything is in place," said Electoral Commissioner Irfan Rahman, who said 14,000 election officials were working to ensure the smooth running of the polls.

The sale of alcohol is banned until Thursday, when the results of the vote are expected.

Two rival coalitions are competing for 62 parliamentary seats - 60 on the main island of Mauritius, and two on the small island of Rodrigues, some 560 kilometres (350 miles) to the east.

On one side, the centre-left group brings together the Labour Party (PTR) of Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam and the former opposition Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) party. Ramgoolam is expected to want to run for president, currently a largely ceremonial position elected by parliament.

Should they win, the PTR-MMM coalition have agreed to try to amend the constitution so the president will be directly elected.

On the other side is the Alliance Lepep, a centre-right coalition led by former president Anerood Jugnauth and three other political parties.

But Lepep fiercely oppose the constitutional reform proposed by the government alliance.

It faces a tough fight: the PTR held a small majority in the past parliament, but now is strengthened further with the backing of the MMM.

MMM leader Paul Berenger insists the plans to boost the president's role will create a "more democratic system" by stripping some power away from the prime minister.

But Lepep leader Xavier Duval fears that reforms would create "a little king of the country" who "will benefit from both civil and criminal immunity, and will do what they want for seven years." Both sides have campaigned on strengthening the economy. Mauritius is one of the richest countries in Africa, a middle-income country of some 1.3 million people, with a per capita GDP of just over US$9,000 (S$11,820).

The PTR-MMM alliance promised to boost "economic infrastructure needed to lift Mauritius from middle-income status" to higher income, and to "improve the living standards of all citizens".

Alliance Lepep have said they want Mauritius to achieve a growth rate of over six per cent.

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