In October 2015 the Republic of Congo – Congo-Brazzaville – held a referendum to ratify a new constitution. In a country with a 2016 Freedom House rating of Not Free, it is unsurprising that the new constitution was overwhelmingly ratified. The official figures show that turnout in the referendum was 72.4% and that 92.3% of those voting supported the new constitution.
The immediate motivation for the reform was to secure the legal position in power of the incumbent president, Denis Sassou Nguesso. Sassou came to power in 1997 following a civil war, which brought an end to Congo-Brazzaville’s brief five-year flirtation with a semi-presidential democracy. In January 2002 a new constitution was passed. This constitution reintroduced direct presidential elections and stipulated a two-term presidential limit. In March 2002 President Sassou was elected president with over 89% of the vote. In 2009 he was re-elected with nearly 79%. With a new presidential election due to be held in March 2016, President Sassou needed to find a way to remain in power in a manner that conformed with the law. The solution was to adopt a new constitution that, if passed, would mean that President Sassou had not served any terms under the new regime. With the counter reset to zero, he was free to stand for election in 2016. As Sophia Moestrup reported in a previous post, with the new constitution in place President Sassou was duly elected at the first round of that election, winning 60.4% of the vote.
While the main motivation for the new constitution was to maintain President Sassou in power, the reforms were quite wide ranging. For example, even though the president is still limited to serving two terms, the presidential term was itself reduced from seven to five years. The age limit for presidential candidates, which had been 70 under the old constitution, was also abolished. President Sassou was born in 1943. The text of the new constitution is available here.
One element of the new constitution was a return to semi-presidentialism. Art. 98 re-established the position of prime minister, which had been present from 1992-1997, but was abolished from the constitution when President Sassou assumed power. In addition, Art. 100 states that the prime minister is responsible to the National Assembly. There is no investiture vote. Indeed, Art. 103 makes this explicit. However, Art. 159 states that the prime minister can call for a motion of confidence. If it fails, then the government has to to resign. The National Assembly can also table a vote of no-confidence, which if passed means that the government has to resign. In short, the new constitution is clearly semi-presidential.
The text of the constitution also makes Congo-Brazzaville an example of a president-parliamentary form of semi-presidentialism, though there is some ambiguity. In the original French, Art. 83 reads “Le Président de la République nomme le Premier Ministre et met fin à ses functions.” This is usually translated into English as: “The President of the Republic shall appoint the Prime Minister and shall terminate his term of office”. This is clearly designed to allow the president to sack the PM if necessary. This point becomes clearer if we compare it with the original wording of the 1958 French constitution, which once again is the model for a francophone country. The French constitution states: “Le Président de la République nomme le Premier ministre. Il met fin à ses fonctions sur la présentation par celui-ci de la démission du Gouvernement.” This is translated as: “The President of the Republic shall appoint the Prime Minister. He shall terminate the appointment of the Prime Minister when the latter tenders the resignation of the Government.” In other words, in France the president merely transacts a decision that has been made elsewhere. In Congo-Brazzaville, the president can act independently.
At this point, such constitutional niceties are unlikely to worry President Sassou. The country may have adopted a semi-presidential constitution, but, as yet, no prime minister has even been appointed. More importantly, there has been violence after the election (or re-election, take your pick) of the president. This left a number of people dead. The opposition still contests the result of the election, though the Constitutional Council, unsurprisingly, has validated the election. Since the election, there have been various arrests of opposition figures. However, the opposition fears that violence is being exaggerated and even manipulated by the regime to justify an even harsher crackdown. President Sassou is still in control, but the situation remains volatile.