ON Sunday, Aug. 30, a remarkable election took place on Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean. Little note was taken, however - a reminder of how rarely good news is carried from the third world. Mauritius is a pear-shaped island of 1 million inhabitants near R'eunion, in the western Indian Ocean. The population of 1 million is sharply divided by language, cultural background, religion, and race. The majority (two-thirds) are the descendants of Indian indentured labor brought to the island in the 19th century; they are both Hindu and Muslim, and speak many Indian languages. Descendants of slaves, many of whom have intermarried with other groups, are called Creoles, and they make up 30 percent of the population; they are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic and vary in skin color from white to black. Franco-Mauritians, who dominated the island before independence, and an immigrant Chinese population make up the rest of the population. Unlike other divided peoples - in Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Cyprus - Mauritians have settled their differences peaceably.
The August election was the fourth free election for Mauritius since independence in 1968. Political parties of every stripe (31 in all) competed, but two main blocs dominated the campaign for governmental control. The incumbent prime minister, Aneerood Jugnauth, led his Alliance coalition to victory, winning 39 of 60 parliamentary seats. This substantial parliamentary victory obscures the fact that the main opposition party, the Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM) and smaller parties allied with it in the Union for the Future received nearly as many votes as the Alliance; the MMM governed Mauritius briefly in 1982-83 and is the main opposition party.
Mauritius' 1 million inhabitants constitute a ``village.'' Political life is intensely personal, as befits a country where everyone knows everyone else. A lively free press examines the actions, words, personalities, motives, religion - and more - of all leading political figures.
Mauritian elections are dominated by communal appeals. But whereas communalism in many countries has led to violence and coups, Mauritians have been able to sustain a lively democracy. There are three reasons for this:
Ethnic balance. Hindus are the largest group (50 percent), but they are divided by caste, class, and language. With Hindu society itself divided, every subgroup is a minority. This limits ethnic polarization. Further, there was no indigenous group (save the long-lost dodo!) on Mauritius. Unlike Fiji, where conflict between the indigenous population and immigrant Indians led to a coup this year, all Mauritians claim the island their own.
Diversity. Mauritians make a virtue of their religious and linguistic complexity. The Mauritian Broadcasting Corporation (modeled on the British Broadcasting Corporation) broadcasts in French, English, Creole, and many Indian languages. Newspapers are published in many languages, and culturally important languages are taught in schools; Mauritians commonly speak three or four languages. This desire to reassure all groups is given unique political expression through the ``best losers'' system. After each election eight defeated candidates (from both government and opposition ranks) are awarded seats to ensure participation of underrepresented groups.
Economic consensus. Leaders agree on economic policy. Until well after independence, Mauritius was the classic sugar island, with this single crop providing over 90 percent of Mauritian exports and foreign exchange. But in a world both oversupplied with sugar and turning to sugar substitutes, this industry provided no long-term prospect for jobs and economic development. In the mid-1970s Mauritius established an Export Processing Zone (EPZ) to promote manufacturing for export. Financial incentives and tax breaks were offered to all who would establish manufacturing facilities. A little more than a decade later there are more than 400 EPZ enterprises employing 75,000 workers. Mauritius' trade balance is positive, and its gross domestic product grew 6.8 percent in 1985 and 7.1 percent in 1986. Per capita income is the highest in the African region. Economic development, based on a mixed economy of tourism, manufacturing for export, and sugar, is accepted by both the Alliance and the MMM. Both espouse a pragmatic Fabian-style socialism which ensures that the rewards of this growth are broadly shared throughout the population. Which group could best do this was the major issue of the campaign.
The economic success of recent years provided the Alliance with its major electoral appeal. But this appeal was clouded by a corruption scandal that cut deeply into government circles. In the past year, revelations of drug trafficking led to the resignations of members of Parliament.
US-Mauritian relations are good and should remain so. Mauritians like to claim they are nonaligned, but it is a nonalignment of a very pro-Western sort. A longstanding problem in US-Mauritian relations has been Mauritius' claim of sovereignty over Diego Garcia - the island excised by Britain from Mauritian control shortly before independence and since developed into a major US military base. Disputes persist over trade - chiefly on sugar and textiles.
Mauritians tend to feel isolated and forgotten, and they perhaps do not know how lucky they are. The Alliance won the election, but Mauritians could go to the polls confident that either coalition would lead Mauritius in basically the same direction.