One of the most important aspects of a functioning democracy is its ability to hold its leaders accountable. A lack of checks and balances or of electoral accountability can lead to democratic backsliding, or the rise of authoritarian governments. Mauritius, a small African country located off of its coast in the Indian Ocean, is a young democracy, but within the last month has learned a valuable lesson about holding its executive accountable.
President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim was accused of using a credit card issued by the Planet Earth Institute to buy clothes and jewelry worth about $27,000. The Planet Earth Institute is a charity focused on the scientific independence of Africa. Following the outbreak of the scandal, Prime Minister Pravind Jugauth announced plans for Gurib-Fakim to resign in the “interest of the country” and Mauritius’s “image as a model of living democracy.” After all, it does not bode well in the international spotlight (or at home) to have the face of the country involved in such a scandal, with potentially disastrous implications for their economy. In addition to Gurib-Fakim’s declining popularity at home, her resignation seemed imminent.
However, several days later, Gurib-Fakim claimed no wrongdoing, stating that she had mistaken the card for her own, refunded all the money she had spent, and denied any plans to resign. Whether or not one believes her claim of an unfortunate accident, it is certainly troubling to see the President and the Prime Minister of a democracy coming out with such different stories and solutions to a scandal. Resignation seemed to be a popular solution amongst the citizens of Mauritius, but Gurib-Fakim’s desire to cling to power despite this seems to be more counterproductive than anything else. While one could argue that Gurib-Fakim’s initial refusal to resign had no underlying authoritarian intent and was more in the interest of defending her own innocence, it’s important to look at the would-be effects on the country and its democracy if she were to escape the accountability standard that Mauritius’s constitution outlines.
In Mauritius, a President can only be removed if it’s proven before a special tribunal that they committed a serious act of misconduct. Gurib-Fakim would have faced such a tribunal had she not finally conceded to resign on March 23rd in the “national interest.” In reality, she was likely responding to pressure from both politicians and citizens alike that were looking for her resignation. While the impeachment proceedings would have raised uncertainty within the country (as well as its image concerning the rest of the world), it is reassuring that a relatively young democracy is willing to take the necessary measures to hold its leaders accountable if need be.
Ellen Lust and David Waldner list accountability as a factor in combating democratic backsliding, and they separate it into two parts: answerability and punishment. Answerability is the obligation to provide information about what they do and explain their actions. In the case of Gurib-Fakim, there is a clear expectation and follow through of answerability in regards to her actions with the misuse of the credit card, both in that she must disclose her actions and try to justify them. However, providing a justification would not mean much if there was no concept of punishment as well, and in this case, the public pressure to resign in the face of impeachment constitutes a clear answer for Gurib-Fakim’s actions.
It is certainly a good sign that the country was prepared to enact its accountability standards, however, if she were to have continued to maintain both her innocence and position in the face of backlash. It is one thing to have procedures outlined within the constitution of the country for a scandal, but another to follow through on them. If there was no bite behind the bark, so to speak, then the accountability standards would essentially mean nothing, and the executive in power would be free from consequence for her misuse of charity funds. Mauritius is considered to be the best governed democracy in Africa, and is often cited as a model for the rest of the continent attempting to become successful, independent democracies. However, young democracies face the possibility of collapse when faced with scandal or potentially authoritarian leaders. The case of a misused credit card may not qualify as authoritarian or a scandal big enough to bring down a functioning democracy, but it serves to test the function of the country’s checks and balances. And in this case, following the resignation of Gurib-Fakim, Mauritius can rest assured that they will continue to exist as a country willing to hold its leaders accountable. While no country wants to have to get rid of its chief executive amidst a scandal, it is a good sign for the durability of Mauritius’s democracy that they are capable of handling a situation like this.