President Manuel Pinto da Costa is São Tomé and Príncipe’s third democratically elected president since the collapse of the socialist one-party regime in 1991. Since 1991 the archipelago has experienced 8 presidents, 17 governments, and has been headed by 14 different prime ministers from four different parties. None of the governments completed their 4-year term. Pinto da Costa’s presidency, like the one of his predecessors, is marked by political instability.
President Pinto da Costa was the first president of São Tomé and Príncipe after independence (1975-1991) and co-founder of the Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe/Social Democratic Party (MLSTP/PSD). Yet during the 2011 presidential elections he ran as an independent candidate. In the presidential runoff he defeated Evaristo Carvalho of the ruling Independent Democratic Action (ADI) party by 52.9% to 47.1%.
When the president assumed office in September 2011, he was faced with a prime minister, Patrice Trovoada, from the ADI. The ADI government, which already lacked a clear parliamentary majority, was weakened by the loss of its candidate at the presidential election.
The situation where the government is supported by a legislative minority and opposes the president is designated as a divided minority government and is associated with institutional conflict and political instability. Under Pinto da Costa’s presidency Trovoada’s minority government lasted only 15 months.
The president dismissed the government on 4 December 2012 following a parliamentary vote of no confidence on 29 November. Despite attempts by his ADI party to contest the decision (notably via the staging of a mass demonstration on 5 December), a new prime minister in Gabriel da Costa of the Union of Democrats for Citizenship and Development (UDD) was appointed by the president. Prime minister da Costa formed a coalition majority government composed of three former opposition parties, MLSTP/PSD, Democratic Convergence Party (PCD) and Force for Change Democratic Movement – Liberal Party (MDFM-PL) and some independents.
With the appointment of Gabriel da Costa the relationship between the president and prime minister has improved. However, corruption scandals have plagued the coalition government. President Pinto da Costa has taken several steps to combat corruption, which, according to him, “destroys democracy”. The most rigorous step was, probably, the government reshuffle in January 2014. In line with the prime minister’s proposal, the president replaced the minister for public works, infrastructure, and natural resources, Osvaldo Abreu, by Fernando Maquengo. Equally, Leonel Pontes, the minister of health and social affairs was dismissed and substituted by Maria Tomé de Araújo. In addition, the president appointed two new government members, namely Demostenes Pires dos Santos as the new minister of tourism, commerce and industry and José Fonseca as state secretary for public works, infrastructure and natural resources.
The military have posed another threat to the political stability of the country. In early February the army refused to dispatch a guard of honour to salute the departure of the president to a conference in Brazzaville, complaining about payment arrears, bad working conditions, and a general lack of recognition of their services. The military strike forced the armed forces chief of staff, Brigadier Felisberto Maria Segundo, to resign. He was replaced by Colonel Justino Lima, who was sworn in by the president on 18 February. São Tomé experienced military coups in 1995 and 2003. Both were non-violent and resulted in negotiated settlements on the restructuring of the armed forces and salary increases.
Political instability could continue as the 2014 legislative election (exact date still unconfirmed) is likely to produce another weak coalition or minority government. Politics in São Tomé – an archipelago of only 180,000 inhabitants – is dominated by four main political parties that do not differ in terms of political ideologies but represent competing interest groups and personalities. Moreover, the country’s electoral system, party-list proportional representation, makes it very difficult for one party to achieve an absolute majority.