Dubbed the ‘coup-coup islands’ due to a legacy of violent government takeovers, the small African island nation of Comoros (population: 800.000) has long been one of the most politically unstable countries in the world. Upon attaining independence in 1975, one of the four Comorian islands – Mayotte – voted to remain part of France, and in 2011 became a French Overseas Department. While the French incorporation of Mayotte was considered illegal by the United Nations, the significantly higher standards of living on this island stimulated secessionist aspirations on the two smaller Comorian islands – Anjouan and Mohéli – which also desired to be released from the largest island of Grande Comore, and to be reunited with France. After nearly three decades marred by successive coups, violent uprisings, and enduring economic malaise, in 2002 a unique electoral system that provides for a rotating presidency between the three islands was adopted. Every five years, a president from a different Comorian island is elected for a single term. Presidential elections are held under the French two-round system, but in the first round only voters on the island delivering the next president can participate. The three candidates with the most votes take part in a second round, in which all eligible Comorian voters can cast a ballot.
The first elections under the new system were won by Azali Assoumani from Grande Comore, who ruled the archipelago until 2006. Subsequently, presidents were elected from Anjouan (2006 – 2011) and Mohéli (2011 – 2016). While the economic situation on Comoros remains dire, and political violence has not been completely eradicated, the fact that all presidents elected under the new system were able to complete their term in office is widely regarded as a considerable achievement.
On 21 February 2016, the first round of a new presidential election was held on Grande Comore, which according to the constitution would deliver the next president. The outcome was close, and the top three candidates all obtained between 14 and 18 per cent of the votes. Among them was former president Assoumani, who in 1999 had staged a successful military coup, and contemporary vice-president Mohamed Ali Soilihi, who emerged as the winner of the first round. The second round of voting, which was held on 10 April 2016, again resulted in a very close outcome: Assoumani was declared the winner with 40,98% of votes, while Soilihi finished second with 39,87% of votes. While international observers considered the election to be free and fair, and the UN Secretary General congratulated the Comorian people with a peaceful election process, numerous irregularities were reported from the island of Anjouan, among which broken ballot boxes, accusations of ballot stuffing, and acts of violence. As a result, the Comoros constitutional court ordered a partial re-run of the election on this island, which occurred on 15 May 2016. Only 2% of the Comorian electorate was allowed to participate in the re-run, which did not produce a significantly different result: Assoumani remained the winner with 41,43% of votes, while Soilihi remained a close challenger with 39,66% of ballots cast.
The recent Comorian presidential election once more underscored the fragile political situation in the archipelago, which remains plagued by inter-island hostilities and separatism. The lack of a single Comorian identity, as well as the divisive effects of the integration of Mayotte into metropolitan France, continue to undermine economic and political progress in the island nation. Economic growth dwindled from 3,5% to 1% over the last two years, and while the new political system has put an end to the series of violent coups, it has not solved the formidable challenges and obstacles that continue to beset the Union of the Comoros.