Gerhard Seibert – São Tomé and Príncipe: presidential elections put an end to 25-year period of cohabitation

This is a guest post by Gerhard Seibert from UNILAB, Bahia, Brazil

On 7 August 2016, Evaristo Carvalho, candidate of the ruling Acção Democrática Independente (ADI) was elected president of São Tomé and Príncipe, Africa’s second smallest country and one of the very few African states with a semi-presidential system.  For the first time in the country’s 25-year democratic history the candidate of the ruling party won the elections. However, unlike earlier elections in the small archipelago for the first time the elections were marked by accusations of irregularities that culminated in the refusal of the incumbent President Manuel Pinto da Costa, the second most voted candidate, to participate in the final ballot.  President Carvalho is not expected to rigorously monitor or even complicate the government’s actions, since he is widely considered a proxy of Prime Minister Patrice Trovoada.

Such harmony between government and president is unprecedented in São Tomé and Príncipe, because in the previous five presidential elections the electorate has always preferred the cohabitation between the two office holders. A somewhat different situation only occurred in the free first presidential elections in 1991 when Miguel Trovoada, Patrice’s father, was elected unopposed president with the support of the Partido da Convergência Democrática (PCD), which had won the preceding legislative elections.  However, President Miguel Trovoada (1991-2001) was not from the PCD and from the beginning his period of office was marked by fierce conflicts with the PCD government.  In 2006, the Movimento Democrático Força de Mudança (MDFM), the party close to President Fradique de Menezes (2001-2011), won the legislative elections in an alliance with the PCD, but the MDFM-PCD minority government headed by the leader of the MDFM soon entered into disagreements with Menezes and eventually was ousted after ten months in office.  Such short-lived governments have been the rule in the archipelago, which has had 17 different governments since 1991.

The political instability has been provoked by conflicts between government and president and the existence of three or four principal parties, which due to the system of proportional representation impeded absolute majorities and made necessary weak coalition governments or minority governments. President Trovoada and President Menezes sacked two and three prime ministers respectively.  In order to impede the president to easily dismiss the prime minister, in 2003 the National Assembly adopted a constitutional revision to reduce the powers of the president in favour of those of parliament.  Under the amendments that came into effect in 2006, the president can only dismiss the prime minister under particular circumstances and only after having consulted a newly created State Council.

The principal contenders of this year’s presidential elections were the same as in 2011. Besides Carvalho they were President Pinto da Costa and Maria das Neves, a former prime minister (2001-2004). Carvalho aged 74 belongs to the same old generation of post-independence politicians as 79-year old Pinto da Costa, while 58-year old Neves represents a younger political generation that assumed higher offices after the democratization process. Carvalho was already government minister in the late 1970s and caretaker prime minister in 1994 and 2001 after President Trovoada and President Menezes respectively had dismissed the government. As in 2011, Pinto da Costa and Neves, who are both from the main opposition party Movimento de Libertação de São Tomé and Principe/Partido Social Democrata (MLSTP/PSD), ran as independents. Pinto da Costa was the country’s first president under the socialist one-party regime (1975-1990) and leader of the socialist-minded MLSTP (1972-1990) and the MLSTP/PSD (1998-2005), while Neves is a prominent parliamentarian of the MLSTP/PSD.[1]  In 2011 Pinto da Costa defeated Carvalho in the final ballot with 52.9% against 41.7% of the votes, while Neves was as the fourth most voted candidate with 14.0% of the ballots. At the time, the country was ruled by a minority government of the ADI headed by Patrice Trovoada, who had won the 2010 elections with 43.1%. Despite massive support by Trovoada and the ADI, in 2011 Carvalho failed to get elected president.

In November 2012, Trovoada was removed from office by a motion of non-confidence supported by the opposition parties MLSTP/PCD, PCD and MDFM that formed a new government. At the time Trovoada accused Pinto da Costa of having waged a constitutional coup against him. Moreover, immediately after his dismissal, allegedly persecuted by his political adversaries he left for voluntary exile in Portugal. From there he only returned to São Tomé during the campaign of the legislative elections in October 2014. Surprisingly Trovoada’s  ADI won the elections with an absolute majority of 33 seats in the 55-member National Assembly, while the other three parties all lost seats. After Trovoada’s return as head of government his relation with President Pinto da Costa was marked by mutual avoidance rather than by conflict. Nevertheless Trovoada, whose term ends in 2018, was determined to frustrate his re-election to avoid any future problems with Pinto da Costa.

Trovoada’s difficult relationship with Pinto da Costa goes back to 1979 when his father Miguel, once a close friend of Pinto da Costa and prime minister at the time, was imprisoned under accusations of having conspired to oust Pinto da Costa from office. He remained in custody without charge and trial until 1981 when President Pinto da Costa allowed him to leave for exile in Paris. Miguel Trovoada only returned from exile during the democratic transition in 1990 to run for the presidency as independent candidate of the opposition. The popular support which Trovoada enjoyed at the time prompted Pinto da Costa to relinquish his scheduled candidacy for the first free presidential elections in 1991. Thereafter Pinto da Costa ran two times for the presidency as candidate of the MLSTP/PSD, but in vain. In 1996 he was defeated in the second round by the incumbent Miguel Trovoada and in 2001 he lost against Menezes, at the time selected by the Trovoadas as official candidate of the ADI.

The ADI first appeared in 1992 when due to the increasing conflict between President Trovoada and the ruling PCD his followers left this party and constituted their own one. Consequently, from the beginning, the party has been associated with the personal and political interests of Miguel Trovoada. However, he never formally assumed the party leadership, as under the country’s semi-presidential constitution the president cannot participate in active party politics. When Miguel left the presidency after two consecutive five-year terms in 2001, he imposed his son Patrice as party leader. This decision prompted the then ADI leadership to abandon the party. Contrary to the MLSTP/PSD and the PCP, which have always experienced a considerable degree of intra-party democracy, the ADI has been ruled autocratically by Patrice Trovoada. It is highly unlikely that his personal party leadership would be challenged by a rival candidate. In fact, the party is run as his personal enterprise and is unthinkable without him. Nevertheless, after vote losses in the 2002 legislative elections, the ADI has considerably increased its votes from 20% in 2006 to 50.5% in 2014. Following the PCD in 1991 and the MLSTP/PSD in 1998, it has been the third party to win an absolute majority. However, contrary to the other two majority governments, the ADI government will be the first one since 1991 to reach the end of the four-year term, since thanks to the constitutional revision the president was no longer able to get rid of it.

Altogether the ballots of 111,222 registered voters were at stake in the presidential elections on 17 July. When Neves announced her independent candidacy in last April, MLSTP/PSD leader Aurélio Martins, an opponent of Pinto da Costa, immediately declared his party’s support for her. At the same time, he advised the incumbent not to run for his reelection, since his twenty-year presidency had been enough.  Regardless of Martins’ appeal, Pinto da Costa soon declared to stand for a second term. Two independent candidates from the MLSTP favoured Carvalho, whose campaign also benefitted from the comparatively wealthy ADI, a relevant factor in an impoverished country, where vote-buying has increasingly become integral part of the electoral process.  One day after the elections, the National Electoral Commission (CEN) announced the preliminary results, according to which Carvalho had been elected with 50.1%, whereas Pinto da Costa and Neves had obtained only 24.8% and 24.1% of the votes.

Two days after the elections, Pinto da Costa and Neves jointly appealed to the Constitutional Court to declare the elections null and void due to grave irregularities that supposedly occurred during the process. Following the recount of votes in several polling stations, on 21 July, CEN president Alberto Pereira published a new communiqué that provisionally none of the candidates had obtained more than half of the valid votes, which would make possible a run-off.  In response, Pinto da Costa, Neves and the opposition parties MLSTP/PSD and PCD asked for the immediate dismissal of Pereira and the entire CEN, whom they accused of a lack of impartiality and of having committed irregularities. Pinto da Costa declared that he would not participate in the run-off, if the CEN would not be dismissed. He explained that to continue participating in such a vicious electoral process would mean to approve it. Later Carvalho accused Pinto da Costa of having refused the run-off to avoid electoral defeat. However this may be, it was in for the first time in the country’s 25-year old democratic history that candidates refused to recognize the election results due to supposed irregularities.

On 26 July the Supreme Court announced the final elections results: Evaristo Carvalho, 34,522 votes (49,8%); Manuel Pinto da Costa, 17,188 votes (24,8%) and Maria das Neves 16,828 votes (24,3%). Two days later, the Constitutional Court rejected the joint appeal of Pinto da Costa and Neves as inadmissible, as the legislation would not support the joint impeachment of a process ruled by uninominal suffrage and because the complainers had not denounced any irregularity detected within the polling stations.   On 7 August, Carvalho won the final ballot unopposed with 81.6% of the votes cast.  He obtained 7,278 votes more than in the first round. The turnout was only 46%, considerably less than the 64.3% on 17 July. The fact that the ADI candidate succeeded in increasing his votes suggests that part of the electorate remained at least indifferent with regard to the accusations of vote rigging.  Carvalho’s election as president marks a crucial change in electoral behavior, since in all other presidential elections the majority of the electorate avoided a situation where the same party controlled both the government and the presidency. This time appeals not to vote for Carvalho to impede Prime Minister Trovoada’s absolute power were clearly ignored by a slim majority.

In mid-August, Neves lodged another complaint against the electoral process in the Constitutional Court arguing that after Pinto da Costa’s withdrawal the CEN had failed to call her as third most voted candidate to participate in the final ballot, as fixed in the country’s electoral legislation. Most probably the judges will reject her appeal since Pinto da Costa had announced his withdrawal after the two-day deadline established by law. Contrary to Neves, Pinto da Costa has come to terms with Carvalho’s election, since despite fears that he might boycott the latter’s inauguration on 3 September, he duly appeared at the ceremony. In contrast, the opposition parties MLSTP/PSD and PCD boycotted Carvalho’s swearing-in ceremony in protest against the alleged irregularities.

The accusations of electoral fraud have seriously damaged the country’s reputation as a model of democracy in Africa. President Carvalho and Prime Minister Trovoada are likely to uphold the image of an unprecedented political stability to mitigate the damage to the credibility of the country’s democracy.  Due to Carvalho’s election São Tomé and Príncipe has become a de facto one-party state ruled by Trovoada’s ADI. It remains to be seen if under the new situation the country will remain an example of tolerance and peaceful political competition or will become increasingly autocratically ruled by a powerful prime minister. Many of Trovoada’s opponents already fear the latter to occur.

Note

[1] The former sole ruling party was renamed in 1990 when it dropped the socialist orientation.

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