In Comoros, members of the opposition have demanded a new vote for the Indian Ocean country’s disputed presidential election. President Azali Assoumani was re-elected with more than half of the votes as the result of elections held on Sunday. The opposition has rejected the results as fraudulent and “an electoral hold-up,” crying foul even before polls officially closed and alleging that the vote was marred by widespread cheating and irregularities, including the stuffing of ballot boxes in opposition strongholds, the vandalizing of voting booths, the barring of independent monitors, the prevention of opposition poll monitors from carrying out their duties, and the marking of ballots before voting officially began, as well as violence during the voting process, arrests of opposition supporters, and assaults on candidates—all of which have been denied by the government.
Soilihi Mohamed, one of the opposition candidates, called for public resistance as he stated “in response to the coup d’état carried out throughout the country aimed at muzzling the population…we [the opposition] declare the current government headed by Colonel Azali illegitimate.” He added that the opposition is demanding a new vote to be overseen by a transitional administration—“[w]e want new elections to take place as soon as possible,” Mohamed said on behalf of the other opposition candidates. Another opposition candidate, Mahamoudou Ahamada, said, “I cannot recognize the results of rigged elections. From the outset, I reject the results that will be proclaimed by the electoral commission…” He further stated that “[t]he most sensible solution would be to organize elections worthy of a civilized country as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, protests started on Monday, with the objective “to prevent the power to validate the fraudulent results of the elections,” stated Soilihi Mohamed. Police forces responded by using tear gas and rubber bullets on opposition demonstrators. President Assoumani stated that “apparently the situation is under control” despite hearing news of opposition supporters ransacking voting stations after stuffed ballot boxes had been found. Authorities accused the opposition of inciting unrest, with the Interior Minister Mohamed Daoudou stating that “[w]e [the government] will do everything necessary to guarantee the peace and stability of the country” while ordering the prohibition of unauthorized public gatherings in the capital city of Moroni.
In a joint statement, observers from the African Union, the African Standby Forces of the East, and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) stated that the election process lacked transparency and credibility; the observers “…condemn[ed] the incidents witnessed which meant voters were unable to exercise their civic rights in conditions of calm.” In a UN statement prior to the elections, the Secretary-General had already called “on all national stakeholders to renew their commitment to a transparent and peaceful vote” and “underline[d] the importance of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as the professional and impartial conduct of law enforcement officials during the elections.”
Last month, the country’s Supreme Court blocked main opposition candidates, including Ibrahim Mohamed Soule and Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, who have been accused of corruption, from participating in the vote. President Assoumani himself won the 2002 and 2016 presidential elections after having first come to power in a coup in 1999. In 2018, Comoros saw major protests and crackdowns as Assoumani oversaw a referendum to modify the constitution to extend presidential term limits, make Sunni Islam the national religion, and abolish the Constitutional Court. Moreover, the referendum was a repudiation of the traditional system under which the presidential post rotates among leaders from the country’s three main islands. The traditional system was originally put in place to limit political instability and stop coups, which have characterized Comoros’s political system since the country gained independence from France in 1975. The referendum, which allowed Assoumani to run for another consecutive term, was boycotted by the opposition, which faced persecution for speaking out.
It should be ensured that the recent voting process—a vote involving only one round of voting, unlike in the 2015 legislative elections, during which a third round of voting was conducted in Anjouan due to claims of irregularities—was fair and transparent. The opposition’s rejection of the voting results is a way to compel a re-examination of the voting process and a way to push forward a fairer, more transparent, and more credible voting process in the present and future. The alleged violent suppression of opposition supporters and the stuffing of ballot boxes represent a suppression of citizens’ political rights and voices and a reversion back to the political instability that the country has attempted to limit. Assoumani’s continued presidency, in the face of the opposition’s allegations, could signal a threat to the country’s democratic political processes and the sharing of political power across the citizens of the country. The suppression of the opposition through the judicial system and security forces severely limited the peaceful transfer of power and could signal a decline in true representation of citizens into the future.
Overall, infringement on political rights and civil liberties in Comoros has not been limited to this one election. As reported by Freedom House, the country has seen recent and systemic persecution of the opposition in the midst of allegations of fraud and intimidation by the government. Heavy sentences have been levied against opposition leaders for speaking out against the President, and the opposition has been greatly limited in its ability to compete in elections, as was demonstrated in this most recent vote. The Supreme Court, which assumed the duties of the eliminated Constitutional Court, to which complaints about election irregularities could previously be successfully brought, must be made enduringly more independent and able to fairly respond to the opposition’s concerns. The government must be constrained in its use of excessive force during voting processes and more generally. Regional and international observers can determine and report on the truth of allegations of fraud and irregularities in elections and help to de-legitimize any fraudulent regime while legitimizing the voices of the opposition if allegations are true. Citizens’ voices must be protected and heard, and their fundamental freedoms respected—transparent and fair elections must be conducted as a way to ensure this.