Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Comoros' political rights rating improved from 6 to 5 due to the holding of largely free and fair presidential elections on each of the archipelago's three islands.
Comoros made a few steps toward restoring democracy in 2002 and took one step back as well. Although elections for the president of each of the three islands that make up the new federation appeared to have been largely free and fair, the poll for the executive leader of the federation was not. Former Colonel Azali Assoumani, who had seized power in 1999 on the main island, Grande Comore, won the executive presidency with 75 percent of the vote. However, he was the only candidate. His two opponents had claimed fraud and dropped out of the race.
Two mercenary invasions and at least 18 other coups and attempted coups have shaken the Indian Ocean archipelago of Comoros since independence in 1975. In 1990, in the country's first contested elections, Supreme Court Justice Said Mohamed Djohara won a six-year term as president. French soldiers reversed a 1995 attempted coup by elements of the Comoros security forces, who were aided by foreign mercenaries. An interim government ruled for five months until President Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim was elected in 1996 in internationally monitored elections that were considered free and fair. Tadjidine Ben Said Massonde became the interim ruler when Taki died suddenly in November 1998.
Comoros comprises three islands: Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Moheli. Anjouan voted for self-determination in a 1997 referendum, repulsed an attempted invasion by the government, and then dissolved into violence as rival separatist groups took up arms against each other. Separatists on Moheli also declared independence. Mayotte Island, the fourth island of the Comorian archipelago, voted to remain a French overseas territory in a 1974 referendum and today enjoys a far higher, French-subsidized standard of living than the other islands do.
Efforts to end the separatist crisis began with the 1999 Antananarivo agreement. Anjouan's refusal to sign the agreement led to violence on Grande Comore and Assoumani's subsequent coup. A reconciliation deal, known as the Fomboni Declaration, was signed in 2000 between the Assoumani government and Anjouan separatists. A national referendum was approved in December 2001 for a new constitution that gave greater autonomy to the three islands of the Comoros within the framework of a confederation, and provided for a rotating executive presidency among the islands every four years.
The country's electoral commission said the 2002 vote for the executive presidency was not fair, but then the commission was dissolved and a body of five magistrates ruled that the election would stand. Since the elections, a power struggle has emerged between Assoumani and Abdou Soule Elbak, who was elected president of Grande Comore after defeating an Assoumani-backed candidate. The core of the struggle between the two leaders appears to be over economic control of the island. At one point, Assoumani dispatched the military to surround some key ministries.
Comorians are among the world's poorest people. The country relies heavily on foreign aid and earns a small amount through exports of vanilla, ylang-ylang, and cloves. The International Monetary Fund said in July 2002 that it was unlikely that development assistance would be forthcoming until administrative control issues were clarified on Grande Comore.
Comorians have the constitutional right to change their government democratically, although this right has only partially been realized. Presidential elections held in 2002 for each of the archipelago's three islands were considered to be largely fair, while the vote for the executive presidency turned into a one-horse race whose outcome was contested. Comorians exercised their constitutional right to change their government democratically in open elections for the first time in the 1996 parliamentary and presidential elections. Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim won the presidency in a runoff election with more than 60 percent of the vote. The conservative Islamic main opposition party held several seats in the National Assembly. New parliamentary elections are scheduled for December 2002.
The Comorian legal system is based both on Sharia (Islamic law) and on remnants of the French legal code and is subject to influence by the executive and other elites. Most minor disputes are settled by village elders or a civilian court of first instance. Harsh prison conditions are marked by severe overcrowding and the lack of adequate sanitation facilities, medical attention, and proper diet.
Freedoms of expression and association are guaranteed and are generally respected. The semiofficial weekly Al-Watwan and several private newspapers sharply critical of the government are published in the capital, but they appear only sporadically because of limited resources. All are believed to exercise extensive self-censorship. Two state-run radio stations broadcast, and up to ten independent radio stations operate without overt governmental interference.
Islam is the official state religion. Non-Muslims are legally permitted to practice, but there were reports of restrictions, detentions and harassment. Detainees are sometimes subjected to attempts to convert them to Islam. Christians are not allowed to proselytize.
Women possess constitutional protections despite the influence of Islamic law. In practice, however, they enjoy little political or economic power and have far fewer opportunities for education or salaried employment than men do. Economic hardship has forced more and more young girls, known as mpambe, into domestic servitude. They receive room and board, but little or no pay.
Unions have the right to bargain and strike, but collective bargaining is rare in the country's small formal (business) sector.