Freedom in the World
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Seychelles received a downward trend arrow because of a crackdown on the opposition, including the adoption of a bill widely perceived as an effort to forestall an opposition party’s plans to establish its own radio station.
In July 2006 elections, President James Michel of the ruling Seychelles People’s Progressive Front (SPPF) party defeated Wavel Ramkalawan, leader of the opposition Seychelles National Party (SNP) party. Two months later, protesters and security forces clashed after passage of a bill restricting private radio-station ownership. The bill was widely perceived as an effort to forestall SNP plans to establish its own radio station.
The Seychelles, an archipelago of some 115 islands in the western Indian Ocean, was colonized by the French but fell under British control in 1814. The country gained independence as a member of the Commonwealth in 1976. Seychelles functioned as a multiparty democracy until 1977, when then–prime minister France-Albert Rene seized power and ousted President James Mancham. Mancham and other opposition leaders operated parties and human rights groups in exile after Rene made his Seychelles People’s Progressive Front (SPPF) the sole legal party. Rene and his party exerted control over government jobs, contracts, and resources, and won one-party “show” elections in 1979, 1984, and 1989. By 1992, however, the SPPF had passed a constitutional amendment to legalize opposition parties, and many exiled leaders returned to participate in a constitutional commission and multiparty elections.
Rene won a legitimate electoral mandate in the country’s first multiparty elections in 1993. The 1998 polls were accepted as generally legitimate by opposition parties, which had waged a vigorous campaign. The Seychelles National Party (SNP), led by Wavel Ramkalawan, an Anglican priest, emerged as the strongest opposition group by espousing economic liberalization, which Rene had resisted.
The political dominance of Rene and the SPPF was further shaken in the August 2001 presidential election, when Rene won a narrow victory that engendered widespread complaints of fraud from the opposition. An official observer delegation from the Commonwealth concluded that the election was peaceful but not entirely free and fair. In October 2002, Rene dissolved the Parliament and called for early legislative elections. The SPPF won the balloting, but the SNP made significant gains, taking 43 percent of the vote.
Given his age and the length of time he had served as president, Rene’s resignation in 2004 was not unexpected. The SPPF remained the dominant political party. Rene was replaced as president by Vice President James Michel, who had served in various senior-level government positions prior to his appointment as vice president in 1996.
The country was badly affected by the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which damaged public infrastructure and facilities. The Seychelles government assessed damage from the tsunami at about $30 million. Tourism and fisheries, both vital to the economy, also suffered. Tourism produced 70 percent of the country’s hard currency and employed approximately 30 percent of the labor force. Seychelles continued to grapple with the effects of the disaster in 2005.
Michel defeated Ramkalawan in the July 2006 presidential election, 54 percent to 46 percent. In early October, protesters and security forces clashed outside the Seychelles Parliament after lawmakers passed a bill that restricted private radio-station ownership, effectively ending the opposition’s hopes of establishing its own radio station. Ramkalawan was among several people who were injured during the protests. The SNP’s secretary general was also beaten and arrested.
Seychelles is an electoral democracy. The July 2006 presidential election was generally viewed as having met basic international norms of legitimacy. However, the ruling SPPF party’s control over state resources and most media gives its candidates significant advantages in the polls.
The current constitution was drafted in 1993 by an elected constitutional commission. The president and the National Assembly are elected by universal adult suffrage for five-year terms. The head of government is the president, who appoints the Council of Ministers. As amended in 1996, the constitution provides for a 34-member, unicameral National Assembly, with 25 members elected directly and 9 allocated on a proportional basis to parties gaining at least 10 percent of the vote. Other amendments strengthened presidential powers. The opposition SNP claims that its sympathizers are harassed by police and victimized by job-related security investigations in the public sector. The probes are generally carried out by SPPF agents at the district level.
Seychelles became a one-party state following then-prime minister Rene’s 1977 coup, but opposition parties were legalized in 1992. Rene remains chairman of the SPPF. The SNP and the Democratic Party have traditionally been two of the most important opposition parties.
Concerns about the extent of government corruption have focused on the lack of transparency in privatization and the allocation of government-owned land. Credible allegations have been made that government officials have sold passports illegally. Seychelles was ranked 63 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech has improved since one-party rule was abolished. Independent and pro-opposition publications have spoken out despite tough libel laws, although some self-censorship persists. There is one daily government newspaper, the Nation , and at least two other newspapers support or are published by the SPPF. The opposition weekly Regar has been sued repeatedly for libel under broad constitutional restrictions on free expression. In December 2004, the newspaper was heavily fined for ignoring a Supreme Court order barring it from publishing a letter by three judges. Regar ’s editor, who is also the secretary general of the SNP, was briefly detained following the October 2006 protest against Parliament’s decision not to permit the establishment of an opposition radio station.
There is a lack of balanced presentation in the state media of national events and deliberations at the National Assembly. The board of directors of the officially multipartisan Seychelles Broadcasting Corporation includes only one opposition representative, although it does have several non-SPPF members. In January 2006, a leading journalist with known opposition sympathies was fired from the state-owned television station. High licensing fees have discouraged the development of privately owned broadcast media. There are no restrictions on internet usage.
The right of religious freedom is mandated in the constitution and exists in practice. Churches in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation have been strong voices for human rights and democratization, and they generally function without government interference.
The constitution explicitly endorses freedom of assembly and association. Private human rights–related organizations operate in the country along with other nongovernmental organizations. Public demonstrations are generally tolerated, although on occasion the government has impeded opposition party gatherings. The right to strike is formally protected by the 1993 Industrial Relations Act but is limited by several regulations. The SPPF-associated National Workers’ Union no longer monopolizes union activity; two independent unions are now active.
The judiciary includes the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, a court of appeals, an industrial court, and magistrates’ courts. Judges generally decide cases fairly but still face interference in cases involving major economic or political interests. There are no Seychellois judges, and the impartiality of the non-Seychellois magistrates can be compromised by the fact that they are subject to contract renewal. Security forces have been accused of using excessive force, including torture and arbitrary detention, especially in attempting to curb crime.
Islanders of Creole extraction face de facto discrimination. Nearly all of the country’s political and economic life is dominated by people of European and South Asian origin. Discrimination against foreign workers has been reported. The government does not restrict domestic travel but may deny passports for reasons of “national interest.”
Women constitute 29.4 percent of the Parliament, one of the highest percentages in Africa, despite the lack of a quota system. In general, however, women are less likely than men to be literate, and they have fewer educational opportunities. While almost all adult females are classified as “economically active,” most are engaged in subsistence agriculture. Domestic violence against women is reportedly widespread but is rarely prosecuted and only lightly punished. Inheritance laws do not discriminate against women.