Legislative elections were held in the Comoros on 19 January 2020; in constituencies where no candidate received a majority, a second round was held alongside local elections on 23 February.
An opposition union including the two largest parties in the outgoing Assembly (the Union for the Development of the Comoros and the Juwa Party) boycotted the elections due to ongoing disputes over constitutional reforms and political repression spearheaded by President Azali Assoumani.
Following decades when the politics of the Comoros was shaped by dictatorship, frequent coups, and civil war, the adoption of the December 2001 Constitution inaugurated the only sustained democratic order in the country since its independence from France in 1975. Azali Assoumani, the leader of the last successful military coup in 1999, remained as president after winning multi-party elections in March 2002. Constitutionally barred from serving consecutive terms, Assoumani stepped down from the presidency for a decade in 2006, before being reelected in 2016.
Beginning in late 2017, President Assoumani promoted a vision to make the Comoros into a developing nation by 2030. On 12 April 2018 he “temporarily” suspended the elected Constitutional Court and transferred its duties to a new Constitutional Chamber within the Supreme Court whose members he had appointed. Two weeks later, Assoumani announced that a series of consultations held with representatives of the nation during the preceding months had determined that to realize his vision of development a referendum should be held to revise the constitution.
The constitutional referendum held in July 2018 proposed to permanently abolish the Constitutional Court as well as eliminate the ban on consecutive presidential terms, and amend the Fomboni Agreement reached at the end of the civil war whereby the first round of presidential elections was held on only one of the nation’s three islands, rotating between them every five years; instead establishing a two-term limit and alternation between the islands only every ten years, with both cycles to begin anew in 2019.
In the months leading up to the referendum, weekly protests against “authoritarian rule” and clashes with the police occurred in the capital, Moroni. The opposition parties declared a boycott of the poll, and their leaders were detained by the army. The vice president and other members of the administration publicly condemned the proposed reforms, and were sacked by presidential decree. Nevertheless, official results claimed 92.34% support for the constitutional amendments. In the wake of the referendum on Anjouan, the island due to elect the next president according to the now-overturned Fomboni Agreement, a revolt broke out which the military put down by force, and which the administration blamed on “terrorists, as well as drug addicts and alcoholics”.
Claiming that he was now eligible to serve for another ten years, Assoumani called a new presidential election in 2019, two years early. The Supreme Court barred the candidates of all major opposition parties from running. Former president and Juwa Party head Ahmed Abdallah Sambi was placed under house arrest; other opposition leaders who went into hiding were tried in absentia and given life sentences at hard labor. The parties prevented from running candidates formed a united organization, the National Council of Transition, and again declared a boycott and protest movement against the “electoral coup d’etat”. Assoumani claimed victory in the election in which all other candidates were independents unaffiliated with a political party.
Both protests and the government’s measures to suppress dissent escalated after the March 2019 vote. Multiple presidential candidates who rejected the official results were injured or arrested by the police, including one who was shot. Journalists were detained, newspaper issues confiscated, and printing presses raided, in response to which private media declared a boycott of government press conferences.
During an extraordinary session of the Assembly held on the evening of 3 September 2019, the administration won a vote on an enabling act giving President Assoumani the authority to rule by decree, to take any measures deemed necessary to conduct new parliamentary elections. This power was used to strip representatives of parliamentary immunity during a new round of arrests and prosecutions of opposition figures. To prevent the passage of an amnesty bill intended to prevent imprisonment for political activity, the government closed the Assembly on 31 December, before its mandate was set to expire in March 2020.
Sources and further reading:
Comoros votes in parliamentary poll boycotted by opposition
The Dangers of Assoumani’s ‘Creeping Authoritarianism’ in Comoros
Comoros seeks $4.6bn in investment to climb out of poverty