Freedom in the World
In December 2010, Vice-President Ikililou Dhoinine won Comoros’ presidential election with 61 per cent of the vote. The vote was originally due to be held in May but was postponed due to political disputes. Meanwhile, in June, the World Bank determined that Comoros had met the conditions to start receiving debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative.
The Union of the Comoros comprises three islands: Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Mohéli. Mayotte, the fourth island of the archipelago, voted to remain under French rule in 1974. Two mercenary invasions and at least 18 other coups have shaken the Comoros since it gained independence from France in 1975. The 1996 presidential election was considered free and fair by international monitors, but Anjouan and Mohéli fell under the control of separatists the following year. A 1999 coup restored order and prompted the signing of a reconciliation agreement, and a 2001 referendum approved a new constitution that increased autonomy for the three islands. The 2002 elections for the island presidencies were deemed largely legitimate by observers, but Colonel Azali Assoumani won the federal presidency after his two opponents claimed fraud and withdrew.
In the 2004 federal legislative elections, Azali supporters captured only 6 of the 33 seats. A moderate Islamist preacher and businessman, Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, won the federal presidency in May 2006 in an election that was also deemed legitimate by most observers.
Mohamed Bacar, the president of Anjouan, organized unauthorized elections in 2007 to extend his rule and claimed to have won with 90 percent of the vote. However, in March 2008, an African Union military force removed him from power, and a supporter of President Sambi was elected three months later.
In a May 2009 referendum, voters approved constitutional reforms that increased the powers of the federal government at the expense of the individual island governments. The reforms altered the composition of the federal parliament to include 24 directly elected seats and 9 seats elected by the three island assemblies, compared with 18 and 15 under the old system. During legislative elections in December 2009, the president’s supporters—the Baobab coalition—won 19 of the 24 directly elected seats. President Sambi’s term of office expired in May 2010, but an election to choose his successor was postponed due to political disputes. This delay provoked tension, especially among residents of Mohéli, which was the next island scheduled to hold the office of federal president, in a unique system in which presidential candidates rotate sequentially from the country’s three islands.
In December, Sambi’s protégé, Vice-President Ikililou Dhoinine, won the presidential election with 61 per cent of the vote. He became the first president of Comoros from Mohéli. His main rival, Mohamed Said Fazul, claimed fraud, including the stuffing of ballot boxes. However, the national election monitoring group upheld the legitimacy of the election.
Large numbers of Comorans illegally emigrate to Mayotte to settle or to seek entry into metropolitan France, and the economy depends heavily on remittances and foreign aid. In 2009, the global economic downturn contributed to delays or suspensions of public-sector salary payments and a continued decline in public services. In June 2010, the World Bank determined that Comoros had met the conditions to start receiving debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Comoros is an electoral democracy. Since 1996, Comorans have voted freely in several parliamentary and presidential elections. Constitutional reforms enacted in 2009 call for a rotation of the federal presidency among the islands every five (previously four) years. The reforms also downgraded individual island presidents to the status of governors, limited the size of cabinets, empowered the president to dissolve the federal parliament, and allowed the president to rule by decree with the parliament’s approval.
The unicameral Assembly of the Union consists of 33 members, with 9 selected by the islands’ local assemblies and 24 by direct popular vote; all members serve five-year terms. Political parties are mainly defined by their positions regarding the division of power between the federal and local governments.
Corruption remains a major problem. In 2007, former Mohéli president Said Mohamed Fazul received an 18-month suspended prison term and a fine for fraud. There have been complaints of corruption among the security forces, and in June 2010, a former army chief was accused of being an accomplice in the murder of his brother; he remained under house arrest at year’s end. Comoros was ranked 154 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution and laws provide for freedom of speech and of the press, but in the past authorities have arrested journalists, seized newspapers, and silenced broadcast outlets for reports that are found to be objectionable. These practices are less common under the current administration. Several private newspapers that are at times critical of the government are sporadically published in the capital. Two state-run radio stations broadcast, as do about 20 regional radio stations and five local private television stations. Internet access is extremely limited for economic reasons.
Islam is the state religion. Tensions have sometimes arisen between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and non-Muslims are reportedly subject to restrictions, detentions, and harassment. Conversion from Islam and non-Muslim proselytizing are illegal. Academic freedom is generally respected.
The government typically upholds freedoms of assembly and association. However, security forces in the past have responded to demonstrations with excessive force. A few human rights and other nongovernmental organizations operate in the country. Workers have the right to bargain collectively and to strike, but collective bargaining is rare. In January 2010, teachers went on strike to protest nonpayment of salaries.
The judicial system is based on both Sharia (Islamic law) and the French legal code and is subject to influence by the executive branch and other elites. Minor disputes are often settled informally by village elders. Harsh prison conditions include severe overcrowding and inadequate sanitation, medical care, and nutrition.
Women possess constitutional protections, but in practice they enjoy little political or economic power and have far fewer opportunities for education and salaried employment than men, especially in rural areas.