Victoria, Mahe, Seychelles:
The islands of the Seychelles, scattered across the Indian Ocean to the north of Madagascar, are better known for their beauty than for their political culture. But beneath the surface a political battle is raging.
Elections for the presidency of the Seychelles will be held from May 19 - 21, 2011. A Commonwealth Expert Team has been sent to observe the poll. The opposition leader, Wavel Ramkalawan, told Think Africa Press that the Seychellois people are “ready for democracy” – a strange phrase to use in a country that has officially been a multi-party democracy since 1993 and whose last presidential election, in 2006, was called “credible” by the UN’s team of experts, albeit qualified with suggestions of further improvements. The Seychelles came second out of all African countries in the 2010 Imbrahim Index assessing good governance. The public is clearly passionate about politics. However, democracy requires more than political passion and the ability to vote. The most striking characteristic of the lead up to this presidential election is fear.
The current government has been in power since a military coup in the mid-70s overthrew then president, Sir James Mancham. In 1993 a new constitution was written forming the current multi-party system. James Michel is the second president under this system, and the second leader of the SPPF (Seychelles Peoples Progressive Front), now the Parti Lepep – succeeding Albert René in 2004.
In 18 years of multi-party democracy there has never been a change of government. This in itself raises questions about the depth of Seychellois democracy. There are more worrying signs: Think Africa Press has seen written evidence of a voter being bribed by the ruling party and of activists for the opposition party being arrested by the police in breach of procedural rules. The state has firm control over the nation’s one television station, as well as the main daily newspaper, Nation, which on April 16 featured six pictures of the current president in its first two pages. These various factors seem to contradict even the qualified UN declaration of credibility and the international image of the Seychelles as a beacon of democracy.
The continued success of the ruling party is not in itself an indictment of Seychellois democracy. There is considerable support for the SPPF/Parti Lepep, and good reason for the support as well. The Seychelles boasts free universal healthcare, and if a citizen can not be treated on the islands they are flown to another hospital in another country to be treated, care of the state. There is also a pension system which, while not amounting to complete support (providing 2,200 rupees - about $183 - per month), still provides the poorest a safety net. But there have been a number of presidential elections, and these have all been won by the same party with a reasonably small majority – the last was 46% to 54%. It is surprising, therefore, that the results have never gone the way of the opposition party. However, in a small majority political opposition stands out more starkly. It’s a small crowd to lose yourself in.
The fear of a watching and knowing state is compounded by individual cases of intimidation and bribery. Think Africa Press has seen evidence that two members of the opposition party, the SNP (Seychelles National Party), were arrested in March for harassment while campaigning. Not only were the activists dealt with by the Officer Commanding the Criminal Investigation Division of the Force, Superintendent Cecile, rather than the local police, as normal procedure would dictate, but the Superintendent also refused to tell the accused who had made the allegations, or any of the specifics of the claim of harassment. Both activists were warned by an intimidating national figure not to do something vague and undefined to unidentified people and then released. This clearly does little to avert fears of a 'big brother' state.
Added to intimidation are allegations of bribery. There are many rumours of bribery, and on both sides. However, Think Africa Press has specific evidence of a letter sent to a construction company with the heading “Presidential Election Campaign Sponsorship”, asking the company in question to send a considerable supply of building materials to an individual. It should be noted that building supplies are the usual way, according to hearsay, of bribing would-be supporters.
Allegations of corruption are not limited to James Michel’s party. But it seems clear that the party in government has the greatest opportunity to play on the fear of the electorate. Not only is the party in power far richer than the opposition, it also runs a public service system which stretches deep into Seychellois society providing employment to many people. People in these public jobs fear losing their positions or being refused promotion if they vote against the incumbent government. Moreover, the government has the ability to organise large-scale events functioning as self-promotion tools paid for with public money. An example of this can be seen in the recent Seychelles 2020 EXPO which marketed itself with the following description: “The Seychelles 2020 EXPO has been created to enlighten the Seychellois people, visitors, investors and the world at large on how the present work-in-progress AND planned and visionary activities will benefit them in the years to come.” It is evident from this description that the event was effectively a presentation of James Michel’s manifesto for the coming years, lavishly laid on and paid for with national funds.
The influence of the government is also increased by its dominance of the media. The only television channel is run by the state. Although officially SBC is an independent organisation, this is not evident in practice. It does not seem independent, for example, to run an hour-long documentary celebrating the seven years in power of the incumbent leader in the run-up to the presidential elections. There are similar issues with the national radio station. In his 2006 election manifesto Michel promised to “encourage national and private media practitioners to play an active and responsible role in our democracy”. However, in the same year legislation was submitted to the National Assembly by Michel’s government which made it more difficult for independent organisations to set up radio stations. A peaceful attempt to get a petition against this legislation signed was met by resistance from heavily armed paramilitary police which landed opposition leader, Wavel Ramkalawan, and then-editor of the opposition newspaper Regar, Jean Francois Ferrari, in hospital with head injuries and broken ribs. The government seems intent on maintaining an iron grip on its media dominance.
(Centre-page spread from Seychelles Weekend, Nation on Saturday April 16, 2011)
This media dominance has several effects. The symbolic presence of Michel is huge in comparison to that of Ramkalawan. The six pictures of Michel in the first two pages of the national newspaper, alongside a centrefold spread launching his new book (see above), is typical. There were no pictures, and there was no mention, of Ramkalawan. But beyond the strong media presence of Michel, and the dearth of communication available to the opposition, the dominance of the media also denies the possibility of debate to the electorate – a fundamental requirement for democracy. If both points of view are not visible, no effective choice can be made.
This weakening of democracy does not arise from corruption, but is fixed in place by an institutional framework. Similarly there is a lack of transparency in campaign financing because the source of funds need not be declared, and the president can imprison voters thereby preventing them from voting (see Elections Act 1996 Part II 1.(1)(b)). This law may shortly be ruled unconstitutional in an ongoing case in the Seychelles Constitutional Court, although the constitution itself is a notoriously difficult document to get hold of.
The people of the Seychelles are passionately political. Until recently there were many demonstrations and rallies testifying to their engagement in political society and their willingness to stand up to those in power, as recorded in Seychelles: the Cry of a People by Alain St. Ange. Unfortunately the government no longer tolerates such demonstrations because, as one citizen told Think Africa Press, “they would be bad for tourism”. Recent peaceful attempts, like the 2006 petition signing and demonstrations against water pollution resulting from the building of President of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa’s new palace, have been met by armed police.
These factors – allegations of intimidation, bribery, the apparent omniscience of the government effected by its media dominance compared to a seemingly powerless and invisible opposition, the lack of tolerance for demonstrations and dissent which are met by aggression and violence – have a deep impact. Individual instances such as a single arrest, bribery, television show, can be shrugged off and the system as a whole called “credible”, as was done by the UN experts. But this is a mistake. It is easy to see that, particularly in a small community, the cumulative effect of all of these various factors make a claim of democratic legitimacy difficult to sustain. For a democracy to function the citizens have to be able to make a free choice when they vote. If they are terrified this freedom is impaired.
Are Seychellois people scared? Well, almost every citizen refused to talk to Think Africa Press once the election was mentioned, although they were open about other aspects of society. Even the Electoral Commissioner, Hendrick Gappy, refused to speak to us. Wavel Ramkalawan, leader of the SNP, told Think Africa Press that “people should not fear politics” – a noble sentiment, but one which hinted at the problems which lie behind his earlier statement, “the Seychelles is ready for democracy”. The citizens may be ready, but James Michel is not.