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 5 to 4 due to the holding of legitimate parliamentary elections.
Successful legislative elections that took place in 2004 reinforced the regional governmental power of Comoros's three constituent islands vis-a-vis that of the central government. Internal strains and rivalries, however, between the leaders of the islands and the federation president resulted in continued political tension.
Two mercenary invasions and at least 18 other coups and attempted coups have shaken the Indian Ocean archipelago of Comoros since its independence from France 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. 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.
Three islands comprise Comoros: Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Moheli. Anjouan voted for self-determination in a 1997 referendum, repulsed an attempted military takeover by the government, and then dissolved into violence as rival separatist groups took up arms against one another. Separatists on Moheli also declared independence. The federal government is located in Grande Comore, but even there serious tensions exist between the federal and regional governments.
Mayotte Island, the fourth island of the Comorian archipelago, had 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 a subsequent coup by Colonel Assoumani Azali. A reconciliation agreement, known as the Fomboni Declaration, was signed in 2000 between the Azali 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 Comoros within the framework of a confederation and provided for a rotating executive presidency among the islands every four years.
In 2002, while 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. Azali, who won the executive presidency, was the only candidate, as his two opponents had claimed fraud and dropped out of the race. Lengthy negotiations occurred over minimum conditions for holding postponed legislative elections. In September 2002 an agreement was reached that would result in legislative polls, which were subsequently postponed until 2004. Key terms of the accord had the central government maintaining control over the country's army, while the police were to be administered by the local presidents. Another key compromise was the decision to set up a provisional customs council to facilitate the fair distribution of revenue among the three islands.
Comorans 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 political troubles have affected the country's economic relations with the outside world. In March 2003, for example, two of the island presidents signed a resolution calling upon the European Union to "temporarily delay" its payments to the central government for fishing rights. They also asked ComoreTel, the largest telecommunications company on the island, to suspend its revenue payments. This tense political situation created confusion amongst Comorans who did not know whether to pay their taxes to their island government or to the central government.
Legislative elections took place in April 2004. Despite concerns that the government would attempt to rig the elections, Comoran and international observers assessed them as legitimate, and the government suffered a serious setback. Candidates supporting the three autonomous islands come out victorious after obtaining 41 out of the 55 contested seats, while backers of Azali won only 12. Since the elections the various opposition and government authorities have sought to manage their differences and relative calm has prevailed.
Comorans have the constitutional right to change their government democratically, although this right has not been fully realized. The 2004 legislative and 2002 presidential elections for the presidency of each of the country's three main islands were considered to be largely fair. The vote for the executive presidency, however, lacked legitimacy. After the country's electoral commission concluded that the vote for the executive presidency was not fair, the commission was dissolved and a body of five magistrates ruled that the election would stand.
Comorans exercised their constitutional right to change their government 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. Prior to the 2004 elections, the parliament had not met since Colonel Azali's 1999 coup. Political discourse is focused mainly on the question of relations between the central government and the governments of the various islands. A wide range of political parties and protagonists exists.
Comoros was not ranked in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. In previous years there have been complaints of corruption among the security forces and unpaid salaries for teachers and other government workers.
Freedom of expression is generally, but not fully, 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 about 20 regional radio stations and five local private television stations operate without overt government 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. Academic freedom is generally respected.
The government generally respects the rights of freedom of assembly and association. The former is explicitly recognized in the constitution, although the latter is not. Occasionally, the police have violently dispersed protesters. Unions have the right to bargain collectively and strike, but collective bargaining is rare in the country's small formal business sector.
The Comorian legal system is based both on Sharia (Islamic law) and on parts 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.
Women possess constitutional protections. 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 growing numbers of young girls into domestic servitude. They receive room and board, but little or no pay.