Gerhard Seibert – São Tomé e Príncipe moves towards authoritarian rule

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

Since the transition from a socialist one-party regime to a semi-presidential multiparty democracy in 1990, the small aid-dependent archipelago of São Tomé e Príncipe located in the Gulf of Guinea has widely been considered as a relatively well-performing democratic political system in an African context. Altogether six times the opposition has won the legislative election and has always taken over power peacefully.[1] Although an independent media was underdeveloped, the extent of press freedom used to be significantly larger than in other countries in the region. The increasing practice of vote-buying during elections and political instability caused by the consecutive dismissal of governments by the head of state constituted the main shortcomings of the system. Political instability was due to frequent government changes, which in turn were predominantly the result of dismissals of the prime minister by the president. Consequently, in 2006 a constitutional amendment became effective that reduced the executive powers of the president. Since then, the president can only dismiss the prime minister in certain extreme circumstances. Nevertheless, the constitutional revision did not bring about the expected political stability, because since then three governments have been dismissed before the end of their term by a majority in the 55-member National Assembly. Twice, in 2008 and 2012, Patrice Trovoada, son of former President Miguel Trovoada (1991-2001) and since 2001 leader of the Acção Democrática Independente(ADI), was ousted as prime minister of a coalition and a minority government respectively by a motion of no confidence approved by a parliamentary majority.

Interestingly, the dismissals contributed to Trovoada’a subsequent electoral success, since he used them to present himself as an innocent victim of political conspiracies and persecution. In the 2002 legislative election, after Miguel Trovoada’s departure from the presidency, the ADI, then in an electoral alliance with four small parties, gained only 16.2% of the votes, 9.4% less than in 1998. However, since then, under the leadership of Patrice Trovoada, who runs the party autocratically as his private property, the ADI has continuously increased the percentage of votes to 20.0 in 2006, 42.2 in 2010 and to 50.5 in 2014, the third absolute majority since 1991.[2] In the local elections held concurrently, the ADI also won the majority in five of São Tomé’s six municipalities. In 2016, the ADI candidate Evaristo Carvalho, who is widely considered Patrice Trovoada’s spineless spokesman, won the presidential election. For the first time since 1991, the president and prime minister were from the same political party. Since then São Tomé e Príncipe has become a de facto one-party state, since Patrice Trovoada and the ADI control the presidency, government, parliament and the municipalities, while the opposition has never been so weak. Local journalists have complained about the increasingly restricted press freedom, while opposition parties have denounced reduced access to government-controlled television and radio. As his political power increased, apparently Trovoada felt the need to improve his personal security. In May 2017, he welcomed twenty military instructors from Rwanda to train ninety people from the defence and security forces, including a newly set up 30-man unit for the protection of the high-ranking government members (UPDE). The presence of the Rwandan military was fiercely contested by the opposition parties Movimento de Libertação de São Tomé e Príncipe/Partido Social Democrata (MLSTP/PSD, 16 seats)[3], Partido de Convergência Democrática (PCD, 5)[4]and União dos Democratas para a Cidadania e Desenvolvimento (UDD, 1)[5] on the grounds that São Tomé had no defence agreement with Kigali and the country already received sufficient military aid and training from Angola, Brazil, Portugal, Morocco and the US.

In August the same year, the three opposition parties harshly contested the approval of two laws approved by the ADI majority in the National Assembly, which they considered as institutional instruments to sustain Trovoada and the ADI in power. The first law provided for a new autonomous Constitutional Court to replace the Supreme Court acting as an ad hoc Constitutional Court since 1991. The opposition did not oppose the establishment of an autonomous Constitutional Court as such, as it is provided for in the 2006 Constitution, but rejected that its members could be elected by parliament by a simple instead of a two-third majority. As the Constitutional Court has to approve the final election results, the opposition feared that future election results might be manipulated by an ADI-controlled court. For the same reasons, the opposition voted against the law on the restructured National Electoral Commission (CEN), the body in charge of voter registration and holding elections. While hitherto the CEN with a four-year term was composed of nine members from all parties in parliament, the new CEN with a seven-year term was constituted by three commissioners, of whom two were to be appointed by the largest parliamentary group.

On 27 December, President Evaristo Carvalho promulgated the controversial law on the new Constitutional Court, although the opposition had asked the existing Constitutional Court for a preventive constitutionality check of the law.  The opposition and Manuel Gomes Cravid, president of the Supreme Court acting in its function as Constitutional Court, condemned Carvalho’s action as unconstitutional and void, as he had disregarded the official deadline for the preventive constitutionality check. Nevertheless, three days later Carvalho dismissed Gomes Cravid as president of the old Constitutional Court, arguing the new Constitutional Court had taken over this task. On 3 January 2018, the Constitutional Court presided by Gomes Cravid presented its decision declaring the law on the autonomous Constitutional Court unconstitutional, since several provisions violated the constitutional principle of the election of the five judges of the new Constitutional Court by a qualified majority. Due to the decision, two judges of the old Constitutional Court, who were close to the ADI, resigned from their posts and recognized the legitimacy of the autonomous Constitutional Court. Due to the stalemate between the government and the opposition parties, in late January, François Louncény Fall, the Special Representative of the UN General Secretary for Central Africa, came for a mediation mission to São Tomé. Having talked to all the parties involved, he left after five days leaving a compromise proposal that was not accepted by the opposition. Immediately after Fall’s departure, the ADI majority elected the five judges of the new Constitutional Court. The opposition parties boycotted the election and declared that they would not recognise the court, because it was unconstitutional. The ADI, however, did not implement the law on the new CEN, but reactivated the existing CEN. However, in March, in another move to further strengthen Trovoada’s personal power, the ADI majority approved an amendment to the National Defence law that transfers the right to appoint the Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces from the president to the prime minister. Interestingly, at least so far, President Carvalho, possibly pressured by the military opposed to the amendment, has not promulgated this law.

The political crisis exacerbated when on 4 May when 31 parliamentarians approved a resolution to dismiss three Supreme Court judges, including its president, Manuel Gomes Cravid, on the grounds that in late April, they had decided in a dispute on the ownership of the local brewery Rosema in favour of its former owner, the Angolan businessman Mello Xavier. The latter had lost the brewery in 2009 to the local businessmen Nino Monteiro, who is also a MLSTP/PSD deputy in the National Assembly. Monteiro purchased the brewery when it had been mortgaged by a Luanda court in favour of another Angolan businessman, who was involved in a financial litigation with Mello Xavier. However, the Supreme Court decision displeased Trovoada and his right-hand man, the lawyer Afonso Varela, Minister of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, for they share common business interests with Nino Monteiro, one of the country’s wealthiest businesspeople. In addition, they have always considered Gomes Cravid, elected in April 2017, as a government opponent.

The removal of the judges by parliament has been considered unconstitutional by the opposition and the Portuguese constitutionalist Jorge Miranda, one of the authors of the country’s democratic Constitution, since it violates the rule of law, the independence of courts and the immovability of judges that is safeguarded in the Constitution. The president of the Angolan Supreme Court of Justice, Rui Ferreira, publicly condemned the dismissal of the three judges as a ‘clamorous violation of the fundamental and universal principles of the rule of law’. PCD and UDD submitted a request to the Constitutional Court to verify the constitutionality of the resolution. Nonetheless, on 23 May, the ADI majority approved a bill that entitles parliament to elect new judges to replace the discharged Supreme Court judges. As expected, on 31 May President Carvalho promulgated this legislation. The same day, MLSTP/PSD, PCD and UDD, who considered the law a usurpation of the rights by parliament, formally asked for a constitutionality check of the law by the Constitutional Court. Given the circumstances, it seems unlikely that the five judges of the Constitutional Court, who were all selected by the ADI recently, will deny the constitutionality of the parliamentary resolution on the dismissal of the three Supreme Court judges or the appointment of new Supreme Court judges by parliament.

The approval of the resolution has also provoked a major crisis within the MLSTP/PSD. In mid-May its National Council decided to suspend six members, including party leader Aurélio Martins, parliamentaryn leader Jorge Amado, and the deputy Vasco Guiva, who had signed the resolution without party consent, as well as the party’s deputies in the National Assembly, Nino Monteiro, his brother António, and Beatriz Azevedo, who had voted together with 28 ADI deputies in favour of the resolution. In turn, the latter three abandoned the MLSTP/PSD, leaving the party with only 13 seats in the National Assembly. In addition, the National Council created a 20-member Institutional Reinforcement Commission to run the party until the legislative elections scheduled for October this year. Martins, a controversial figure considered close to the Monteiro brothers, refused to accept his removal, arguing that only an extraordinary party congress could replace him by electing a new leader. It remains to be seen if the MLSTP/PSD can emerge from its greatest crisis more united and strengthened in time for the elections to be capable of effectively challenging the absolute majority of Trovoada’s ADI.

Online sources: Téla Nón, Agência STP-PRESS, Rádio Nacional de São Tomé e Príncipe.

Notes

[1] In 1991, 1994, 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014.

[2] In 1991, the PCD won the absolute majority of votes (54.4%) and seats (33) and in 1998 the MLSTP/PSD gained an absolute majority of seats (31). Nevertheless, both governments were dismissed by the president in 1994 and in 2001 respectively.

[3] The sole ruling party during socialist one-party rule, 1975-90.

[4] The country’s first opposition party that won the first multiparty elections in 1991.

[5] Founded by ex-ADI members opposed to the leadership of Patrice Trovoada, in 2005.

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