São Tomé and Príncipe: A Small Country with Big Politics

On Sunday July 17th, São Tomé and Príncipe held elections to determine the new president of the island nation.

Observers predicted a tight race between the incumbent Manuel Pinto da Costa, who ran as an independent, and his two competitors Evaristo Carvalho and Maria das Neves. Mr. Carvalho ran under the banner of the Independent Action Party (ADI), which holds a parliamentary majority after the 2014 legislative elections, while Mrs. Das Neves represents the Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe/Social Democratic Party (MLSTP/SDP), the main opposition party. There was little reason to think these elections would be anything but routine; after all São Tomé and Príncipe has been rated “Free” by Freedom House every year since its transition to democracy in 1991.

However, the 2016 electoral process has been derailed by a series of new developments. It all began when the country’s National Electoral Commission (CEN) announced that Evaristo Carvalho won 50.1 percent of the vote, narrowly avoiding a run-off. The remainder of the electorate split between Mr. Pinto da Costa (24.8 percent) and Mrs. das Neves (24.1 percent). Both runner-ups immediately cried foul, contesting the results with the nation’s Constitutional Tribunal. The director of Mrs. Das Neves’ campaign argued that the elections “were neither free nor fair, nor transparent.” The day following the election, the CEN recanted the initial result. It made no statement of electoral fraud, but claimed that delayed results from the São Toméan diaspora and the town of Maria Luisa had not been counted. The new results awarded 49.8 percent of the votes to Carvalho, 24.8 percent to Pinto da Costa, and 24.3 percent to das Neves — a run-off vote would be scheduled after all.

The CEN’s announcement did little to appease Carvalho’s competitors. MLSTP/SDP has withdrawn its representatives from the CEN, disputing its legitimacy. Even more dramatically, President Pinto da Costa has refused to run in the second round in protest of the electoral process. In a statement to the nation, da Costa explained that “To continue taking part in such a distorted electoral process would be to endorse it. I won’t do it as a candidate, and even less so as the president of the republic.” The Constitutional Tribunal, São Tomé and Príncipe’s highest court, has rejected the President’s call to scrap the results. The next round of voting is scheduled for August 7th, and it is unclear how the CEN will react to the electoral disputes.

The African Union observer mission led by former Mozambican President Armando Guebuza refrained from ruling on the fairness on the election, as it is still ongoing. However Guebuza remarked favorably on the first-round process, calling voting “independent, professional, and efficient” and ruling it in compliance with the AU’s Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. Past elections in São Tomé and Príncipe have featured vote buying, or “banho”, but it has never been deemed influential over final outcomes. New legislation was put in place to combat the practice in advance of the 2014 parliamentary elections, which were considered free and fair by both outside observers and opposition parties.

If the second round of voting confirms Carvalho as the next president, it would be a curious departure from the norm in Africa’s second smallest country. São Toméan voters have never given the same party control of the presidency and the National Assembly. In the fifteen years since democracy was established, squabbles between the president and prime minister caused a dozen changes in government. However, constitutional reforms instituted in 2006 drew a clearer line between the responsibilities of the president as head of state and the prime minister as head of government. The presidency is no longer able to dismiss prime ministers, granting a measure of stability. Since 2006, most political competition has been within the legislature. However, having won 33 of the assembly’s 55 seats in 2014, ADI is shielded from votes of no confidence within the legislature. MLSTP possesses only 16 seats, with the remainder held by smaller parties. During his campaign, Mr. Pinto da Costa and his supporters warned against the danger of handing control of the state’s main institutions to one party.

Whoever eventually comes out on top in this presidential drama, the São Toméan constitution places the most important decisions in the hands of the National Assembly. The need for accountable and effective governance cannot be overstated in São Tomé and Príncipe — one third of the population lives below the World Bank’s poverty line, and foreign aid makes up the majority of government revenue. A contentiously elected president will arguably make the role of the Assembly even more important. Unfortunately, most of its representatives lack experience in drafting legislation and reaching out to constituents. With funding from the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), IRI has been working in São Tomé and Príncipe to strengthen the Assembly’s capacity. In the aftermath of these 2016 elections, the Institute will continue its programming, ensuring that legislators from all parties have the skills and tools necessary to hold the government accountable and respond to the needs of the tens of thousands of voters who brought them into power.


By Dafe Oputu | Program Associate | Africa Division 
Originally published at www.democracyspeaks.org.