Opposition lead in Mauritius parliamentary poll count

Mauritius` opposition Lepep coalition took a strong early lead Thursday during vote counting for parliamentary polls on the Indian Ocean island nation, election officials said.

Debate over constitutional reform has made the polls some of the most crucial since the country gained independence from Britain in 1968.

First official partial results released by the Electoral Commission after about 40 percent of ballots were counted put the Alliance Lepep ahead across all 21 districts.

The majority of the Mauritian media agreed in predicting a win for Lepep, led by ex-president and ex-prime minister Anerood Jugnauth.

Initial projections gave it some 46 seats against only 14 to its rivals, the coalition of the Labour Party (PTR) led by Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam, and the Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM) party of ex-prime minister Paul Berenger.

The key battlegrounds in Wednesday`s vote were the economy and proposals to strengthen presidential powers.

Counting began early Thursday after a turnout of 74 percent among the island`s 936,000 voters, according to the election commission, and results were expected late in the day.Ballot boxes were stored overnight before counting began on Thursday, an AFP reporter said.

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 Ramgoolam and the former opposition Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) party.

Ramgoolam is expected to run for president, currently a largely ceremonial position elected by parliament.

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

On the other side is the centre-right Alliance Lepep, which fiercely opposes the constitutional reform proposed by the government alliance. 

Both sides have campaigned on strengthening the economy, which is based on the textile industry, sugar and tourism.

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 $9,000 (7,200 euros).

The country has had four prime ministers in its history - and one of the three most recent leaders will once again become the next head of government.

Jugnauth and Ramgoolam have alternated posts since 1982, except for a brief interlude between 2003 and 2005 when Beranger served as prime minister.

Between independence and 1982, the head of government was Ramgoolam`s father, Seewoosagur Ramgoolam.