Freedom in the World
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Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Referendum voters in May approved a constitutional overhaul that strengthened the powers of the central government, in part by extending the president’s term and reducing the authority of each island’s leader. In parliamentary elections held in December, President Ahmed Abdallah Sambi’s supporters won 19 of the 24 directly elected seats in the 33-seat legislature.
The Union of the Comoros comprises three islands: Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Moheli. Residents of Mayotte, the fourth island of the archipelago, voted to remain under French rule in a 1974 referendum.
Two mercenary invasions and at least 18 other coups and attempted coups have shaken the Comoros since it gained independence from France in 1975. The 1996 presidential election was considered free and fair by international monitors, but Anjouan and Moheli fell under the control of separatists the following year. Colonel Azali Assoumani staged a coup in 1999 in a bid to restore order. A reconciliation agreement was signed in 2000, and a 2001 referendum approved a new constitution that gave greater autonomy to the three islands. The 2002 elections for the island presidencies were deemed largely free and fair, but Azali won the federal presidency after his two opponents claimed fraud and withdrew.
In the 2004 federal legislative elections, Azali supporters captured only 6 of the 33 seats. A moderate Islamist preacher and businessman, Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, won the federal presidency in May 2006, taking 58 percent of the vote in an election that was also deemed legitimate by most observers.
Colonel Mohamed Bacar, president of Anjouan, refused to leave office at the end of his term in April 2007. He organized unauthorized elections in June to extend his rule, and claimed to have won with 90 percent of the vote. However, in March 2008 an African Union military force removed him from power, and three months later a supporter of President Sambi was elected in his place.
In May 2009, referendum voters approved constitutional reforms that increased the powers of the federal government at the expense of the individual island governments, whose presidents would be downgraded to governors and left with reduced authority. Among other changes, the reforms altered the composition of the federal parliament to included 24 directly elected seats and 9 seats elected by the three island assemblies, compared with 18 directly elected and 15 indirectly elected seats under the old system. Legislative elections were held under the new rules in December, and the president’s supporters—grouped under the Baobab coalition—won 19 of the 24 directly elected seats, providing Sambi with sufficient support to enact a one-year extension of his term as called for in the constitutional reforms.
Large numbers of Comorans illegally emigrate to Mayotte, either to settle there or to seek entry into metropolitan France, and the economy depends heavily on remittances and foreign aid. In 2009, the global economic downturn contributed to delays or suspensions of public-sector salary payments and a continued decline in public services.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
The Comoros is an electoral democracy. Since 1996 Comorans have voted freely in several parliamentary and presidential elections. Under the 2001 constitution, the federal presidency rotates among the islands every four years, but a constitutional referendum in May 2009 extended the presidential term to five years. The reform also downgraded individual island presidents to the status of governors, limited the size of cabinets, empowered the president to dissolve the federal parliament, and allowed the president to rule by decree with the parliament’s approval.
The unicameral Assembly of the Union consists of 33 members, with 9 selected by the islands’ local assemblies and 24 by direct popular vote; before the 2009 referendum, there were 15 indirectly elected and 18 directly elected seats. All members serve five-year terms. Political parties are mainly defined by their positions regarding the division of power between the federal and local governments.
Corruption remains a major problem. In 2007, former Moheli president Said Mohamed Fazul received an 18-month suspended prison term and a fine for fraud. There have also been complaints of corruption among the security forces. The Comoros was ranked 143 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution and laws provide for freedom of speech and of the press, but the government partially restricts press freedom. The authorities have arrested journalists, seized newspapers, and silenced broadcast outlets for reports that are found to be objectionable, although these practices are less common under the current administration. Several private newspapers that are at times critical of the government are sporadically published in the capital. Two state-run radio stations broadcast, as do about 20 regional radio stations and five local private television stations. Internet access is extremely limited for economic reasons.
Islam is the state religion. Tensions have sometimes arisen between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and non-Muslims are reportedly subject to restrictions, detentions, and harassment. Conversion from Islam and non-Muslim proselytizing are illegal. Academic freedom is generally respected.
The government typically upholds freedoms of assembly and association. However, security forces have responded to demonstrations with excessive force in the past. A few human rights and other nongovernmental organizations operate in the country. Workers have the right to bargain collectively and to strike, but collective bargaining is rare. In 2009, teachers went on strike to protest nonpayment of salaries.
The judicial system is based on both Sharia (Islamic law) and the French legal code and is subject to influence by the executive branch and other elites. Minor disputes are often settled informally by village elders. Harsh prison conditions include severe overcrowding and inadequate sanitation, medical care, and nutrition.
Women possess constitutional protections, but in practice they enjoy little political or economic power and have far fewer opportunities for education and salaried employment than men, especially in rural areas.