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Will the Seychellois co-habit or mutually destruct?
15 September 2016

While Africa’s attention was focused on election-rigging in Gabon and Zambia, on the mainland, a rather rare victory for democracy on a tiny speck of land in the middle of the Indian Ocean  – 1 800 km due east of Mombasa – went barely noticed.

In Seychelles, 62 939 of the idyllic island’s 71 932 eligible voters quietly turfed out the Parti Lepep (PL – People’s Party) which, under different guises, had held sway since 1977. It was then, just one year after independence from the United Kingdom (UK), that Marxist Prime Minister Albert René ousted centre-rightist president James Mancham in a coup, and quickly imposed a one-party Marxist state in the classic post-independence manner.

For a while, Seychelles became a microcosmic caricature of post-independence Africa in other ways too, including several abortive mutinies and coups. In 1981, one was led by the notorious British-Irish ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare and his motley band of mercenaries from South Africa and elsewhere, masquerading as a rugby club dubbed the Ancient Order of Frothblowers.

The attempt failed because one of the mercenaries accidentally got into the ‘something to declare’ queue on arrival at the Mahé airport, and his rifle was discovered in his suitcase. The coup attempt was backed by the South African apartheid government and, some say, Washington. It was not the first time, of course, that Pretoria – with suspected United States approval – intervened to try to topple a Marxist government.

Meanwhile, several enemies of René were being mysteriously murdered in exile.

For a while, Seychelles became a microcosmic caricature of post-independence Africa
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But, as time passed, René’s Marxism mellowed and moderated and Seychelles settled into normality.

Like many other leaders of one-party states, René was forced by international pressure to allow multi-party democracy after the Cold War ended. In the country’s first electoral contest, in 1993, René easily beat Mancham, who had just returned from exile, in the presidential election. René’s Seychelles People’s Progressive Front (SPPF) – the predecessor of the PL – trounced Mancham’s Democratic Party (DP) in the legislative elections.  

This was to be the basic pattern for the next 23 years, though Mancham and the DP meanwhile lost ground to other opposition leaders and René retired in 2004, to be replaced as SPPF leader and national president by his deputy, James Michel.

In May 2015, Michel won a successive third term, though by the narrowest of margins, against Wavel Ramkalawan, leader of the then main opposition, the Seychelles National Party (SNP). And the PL already enjoyed a virtual monopoly in Parliament, because the SNP had boycotted the 2011 legislative elections, claiming they would not be fair.

According to the LDS election manifesto, Seychelles will become something of a model democracy
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But that comfortable position for Michel changed last week. The SNP and four smaller parties had done what African opposition parties seldom do. They joined forces to form the Linyon Demokratik Seselwa (LDS) – the Seychelles Democratic Alliance.

And in last week’s elections, with an 87% turnout, the LDS won 19 seats to the 14 won by the LP, giving it a clear majority. LDS leader Roger Mancienne called it a ‘historic victory.’ Michel and the LP graciously conceded defeat and Michel promised to work with the LDS-controlled National Assembly. Yet Seychelles is embarking on what promises to be a challenging new chapter of ‘co-habitation’ politics, as Claude Morel, the country’s High Commission to South Africa describes it.

If the LDS election manifesto is to be believed, the new majority party aims to make the island state something of a model democracy. Seychelles now has an ambiguous democratic status. Freedom House, for example, rates it only as ‘partly free’ – mainly because of the virtual monopoly of power the LP has enjoyed for four decades. This has enabled it to get a lock grip on much of the economy, state institutions and the media, though Morel insists the ‘Seychelles media is free and there are more anti-government press publishing than pro-government’.

But the LDS, in any case, has promised to boost the powers of Parliament considerably to transform it from a ‘symbolic’ institution, as Mancienne has put it, to one which properly does its job of holding the executive far more accountable than it has been so far.

This includes tripling Parliament’s work schedule from the current, rather relaxed, single sitting a week to three, including much more time to grill the president and ministers. It intends introducing a Freedom of Information act to force the executive to be more open.

The LDS, in any case, has promised to boost the powers of Parliament considerably
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It has also promised to make Parliament itself more transparent and democratic, even allowing private citizens to participate in debates and broadcasting both Parliamentary and committee proceedings on a new Parliamentary TV channel.

It also promises substantial economic reforms. At first glance, Seychelles lives up to its idyllic image – not only for tourists, but also for locals. Its flourishing tourism and fishing industries, increasingly supplemented by agriculture, boosted its GDP per capita to US$15 476 last year, making it the highest – by quite a long chalk – in Africa. (South Africa’s was US$5 691.)

Yet some might say, with a population of barely 93 000, that’s not too difficult. And it’s also true that although Seychelles has been governed for four decades by an ostensibly socialist party, it’s officially still the most unequal country in the world, economically speaking. Its Gini Coefficient, at 65.8, is the highest of the 137 nations measured by the United Nations Development Programme, worse even than South Africa’s 63.1.

The Michel government, though, has been tackling the inequality with reforms to open up the economy, some of them conditions for receiving loans from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank since 2008, when mounting external debts and the global economic crisis pushed the country into default.

Last year, the World Bank lent it US$5 million specifically to help spread wealth to the 'bottom 40%' of the population, as the bank’s task team leader Rafael Muñoz Moreno put it, while also praising the country’s ‘good performance in reducing poverty’. He said: ‘Social indicators are impressive and the country has achieved most of the Millennium Development Goals, especially for education, health, poverty eradication, and the environment.’

Will cohabitation invigorate the island nation’s rather sleepy political debate?
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Nonetheless the LDS promises to attack that inequality more vigorously, boosting education, especially in sought-after skills; replacing expatriates with Seychellois in skilled jobs, professions and management; protecting small businesses against monopolies; reserving some parts of business for Seychellois entrepreneurs and ensuring banks lower interest rates and pursue ‘more affirmative leadership action.’

All of this sounds rather more socialist than the socialists and rather utopian, though it is, of course, only an election promise.

And Morel cautions that the LDS-controlled Parliament ‘will only have powers in terms of legislation and checks and balances on the government and it may influence budget spending, but cannot directly change economic policy, government ministers, or any other aspect of government policy.

‘It is therefore comparable to the situation the USA faces when Barack Obama, a Democrat President co-exists with a majority Republican Congress.’

That comparison raised the big question whether cohabitation will invigorate the island nation’s rather sleepy political debate to the benefit of all, or cause gridlock between the executive and the legislature, which will help no one. If anyone cares to train their telescopes that far out into the Indian Ocean, it should be instructive to discover how the new dispensation plays out.  

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

Picture: ©Patrick Joubert, Seychelles News Agency

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