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The Seychelles economy was buffeted by rising food and fuel costs for much of 2008, although the political arena remained relatively placid. A new chief justice who was appointed in August promised to reduce a backlog of court cases.
The Seychelles gained independence from Britain in 1976 but remained a member of the Commonwealth. The country functioned as a multiparty democracy until 1977, when Prime Minister France-Albert Rene seized power from President James Mancham. Rene then made his Seychelles People’s Progressive Front (SPPF) the sole legal party, winning one-party “show” elections in 1979, 1984, and 1989. By 1992, however, the SPPF had passed a constitutional amendment legalizing opposition parties, and many exiled leaders returned. Rene won multiparty elections in 1993.
The Seychelles National Party (SNP), led by Wavel Ramkalawan, emerged as the strongest opposition group in 1998 elections. Rene won a narrow victory in the 2001 presidential election, engendering opposition complaints of fraud. In October 2002, Rene dissolved parliament and called for early legislative elections. Although the SPPF won, the SNP made significant gains.
Rene stepped down as president in 2004 and was replaced by Vice President James Michel. The Indian Ocean tsunami struck later that year, causing about $30 million in damage to public infrastructure; the vital tourism and fishing industries also suffered. Michel defeated Ramkalawan in the July 2006 presidential election. In early October, protesters and security forces clashed outside the parliament building after lawmakers passed a bill restricting private radio-station ownership, effectively ending the opposition’s hopes of establishing its own radio station.
The SPPF’s majority of 23 seats was left unchanged by the May 2007 legislative elections, with the SNP taking the remaining 11. Michel subsequently restructured his government, placing an emphasis on environmental issues that could affect the country’s reputation as a tourist destination.
The Seychelles economy was harmed by rising food and fuel costs for much of 2008. An International Monetary Fund mission in September found that the country suffered from unsustainable debt, rising inflation, and a depletion of the central bank’s foreign reserves. By contrast the political arena remained relatively placid. A new chief justice was appointed in August and promised to reduce a backlog of court cases due in large part to a shortage of legal staff.
Seychelles is an electoral democracy. The July 2006 presidential election and the 2007 parliamentary polls were generally viewed as having met basic international norms of legitimacy.However, the ruling SPPF’s control over state resources and most media gives its candidates a significant advantage at the polls. The president and the unicameral National Assembly are elected by universal adult suffrage for five-year terms. The head of government is the president, who appoints the cabinet. Of the National Assembly’s 34 members, 25 are elected directly and 9 are allocated on a proportional basis to parties gaining at least 10 percent of the vote.
The SPPF remains the dominant party, and the opposition SNP has claimed that its sympathizers are harassed by police and victimized by job-related security investigations in the public sector.
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 55 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
According to the BBC, the government controls much of the islands’ media, operating radio and television stations. The government owns one daily 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 by government officialsunder broad constitutional restrictions on free expression. The other major independent newspaper, Le Nouveau Seychelles Weekly, has also faced state interference in its functioning. The board of directors of the officially multipartisan Seychelles Broadcasting Corporation includes only one opposition representative, though it does have several non-SPPF members. High licensing fees have discouraged the development of privately owned broadcast media. The media environment improved in 2008, with no reports of government actions against the press. There are no restrictions on internet usage.
The right of religious freedom is mandated by the constitution and exists in practice. Churches in this predominantly Roman Catholic country have been strong voices for human rights and democratization, and they generally function without government interference.
The constitution endorses freedoms of assembly and association. Private human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations operate in the country. Public demonstrations are generally tolerated, although on occasion the government has impeded opposition gatherings. The right to strike is 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.
Judges generally decide cases fairly but still face interference in cases involving major economic or political interests. The majority of the members of the Seychellois judiciary are foreign nationals, allegedly due to the lack of qualified Seychellois judges, and the impartiality of the non-Seychellois magistrates can be compromised by the fact that they are subject to contract renewal. The new chief justice, a Sri Lankan with long experience in the Seychelles judiciary, was appointed in August 2008 after the retirement of his predecessor.Security forces have at times 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 unspecified reasons of “national interest.”
The Seychelles in recent years has boasted one of the highest percentages of women in parliament in Africa at 24 percent, despite the lack of a quota system. Inheritance laws do not discriminate against women. In general, however, women are less likely than men to be literate, and they enjoy fewer educational opportunities. While nearly all adult females are classified as “economically active,” most are engaged in subsistence agriculture. Domestic violence is a widespread problem.According to press reports, the Family Tribunal, the court of first instance for family-related disputes,reportedly found that cases of domestic violence rose substantially between 2006 and 2007, and the government’s Gender Secretariat found that 28 percent of women in 2007 had suffered from abuse. Domestic violence is rarely prosecuted and only lightly punished.