Cabo Verde Presidential Vote: Fresh Hope For Democracy In West Africa

*By Paul Ejime

Cabo Verde’s Main presidential candidates, Neves and Veiga

Democracy has suffered troubling assaults in the politically restive West Africa and the Sahel regions in the past year with three successful military coups in Mali and Guinea, an attempted putsch in Niger and a disguised military takeover in Chad, where assassinated President Idriss Deby was succeeded by his soldier son.

The prognosis is rather grim if you add the chronic insecurity in the regions characterized by incessant deadly attacks by terrorists, extremist Jihadists, separatists and other armed groups, including Boko Haram, ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Cabo Verde holds its next presidential election on the 17th of October, and with its good track record in conducting credible polls since independence from Portugal in July 1975, the forthcoming poll will not be an exception.

Some may argue that this nation with estimated 550,000 people is comparatively small in population and, therefore, far removed from the asphyxiating political heat of the rest of West Africa. But despite its closeness to Europe, Cabo Verde remains an African country; a member of the regional bloc – Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU). Therefore, other African countries could learn a lesson or two from the nation’s conduct of elections with integrity and other governance administration.

The Archipelago made up of 10 islands and five islets, all but three of which are mountainous, lies across 600 Kilometres off Senegal on the West African Coast. With little arable land, it is prone to severe droughts, which in the 20th century caused the deaths of 200,000 people and prompted heavy emigration. Today, more people of Cabo Verdean descent live outside the country than inside it.

In the last ten years, ECOWAS and other partners have provided Cabo Verde with humanitarian support following severe flooding on the island of Boa Vista in 2012 and volcanic eruptions on the Fogo Island in 2015. Both incidents caused severe losses of property and human displacements. The nation is poor in natural resources and heavily dependent on tourism, which has taken a heavy hit from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The remittances by Cabo Verde’s large population in diaspora account for much of the country’s foreign currency needs, but it also enjoys a higher per capita income than those of many other African countries, even as the government in Praia pushes for closer economic ties with the US, EU and Portugal.

In 2008, Cabo Verde became only the second country after Botswana to be promoted by the United Nations out of the ranks of the 50 least developed countries. Until the COVID-19 outbreak, the nation witnessed national economic growth averaging 6%, with the construction of three international airports and hundreds of kilometres of roads.

Cabo Verde’s independence in 1975 came a year after its sister colony, Guinea-Bissau, gained political freedom from Portugal. The two African countries had planned to unite, but this was scuttled after a coup in Guinea-Bissau in 1980 strained relations.

In 1991, Cabo Verde held its first democratic presidential election, won by Antonio Mascarenhas Monteiro, who replaced the Islands’ first President, Aristides Pereira.

The last presidential poll in 2016 was adjudged free and fair by international and local observers, and so were the parliamentary votes conducted under the coronavirus pandemic conditions last April.

To a large extent, the issue is not so much about the country’s relatively small population size, as its determination to establish and nurture strong democratic institutions with robust governance systems, and a national commitment to promote political conducts that are in sync with international best practices.

The Constitutional Court has approved seven candidates for the October 17 presidential election. Incumbent President Jorge Carlos Fonseca, in power since 2011, is not running, having reached the maximum limit of two terms allowed by the Constitution.

Electoral campaigns have since started on September 30 under a calm and peaceful atmosphere and will end on October 15. A successful candidate must poll 50% +1 vote to win the presidency, with a run-off, or second round fixed for October 30, if no candidate meets that threshold.

The seven candidates gunning for the top post are Jose Maria Pereira Neves, Carlos Alberto Wahnon de Carvalho Veiga, Fernando Rocha Delgado, Gilson Joao dos Santos Alves, Helio de Jesus Pina Sanches, Joaquim Jaime Monteiro, and Casimiro Jesus Lopes de Pina.

But the two frontrunners are Veiga, 72, of the ruling Movement for Democracy (MpD), while the opposition African Party for the Independence of Cabo Verde (PAICV), is fielding Neves, 61.

Their two parties have alternated control of power between them, with Neves and Veiga having previously served as Prime Minister for three terms of 15 years and two terms of ten years, respectively.

In the April parliamentary poll, the MpD clinched 38 of the 72 available seats; the PAICV had 30, gaining one seat, while the Democratic and Independent Cabo Verdean Union, UCID, won four seats, one more from the previous legislature.

Cabo Verde operates a semi-parliamentary system where the Prime Minister dominates the executive, with the President acting as an arbitrator. Under the country’s Constitution, the victorious party in the legislative vote appoints the Prime Minister, so outgoing Prime Minister Ulisses Correia e Silva, 58, is a member of the ruling MpD.

But with his party losing two previously held seats in the April election, there are indications that the PAICV could snatch a presidential victory.

With 27 female MPs (37.5%) out of a total 72; nine female cabinet Ministers out of 28; and only one Mayor out of 22, Cabo Verde could do more on gender parity and mainstreaming.

Janira Hopffer, leader of the PAICV contested the Prime Minister position as a female candidate last April, but lost to Correia e Silva of the ruling MpD. Other women, who hold important positions in some national institutions, include Maria do Rosário Pereira Gonçalves, Chair of the National Electoral Commission, CNE, the out-going President of the ECOWAS Network of Electoral Commissions (ECONEC).

Arlinda Chantre is the Director-General of the General Directorate for Support for the Electoral Process, DGAPE, while Juceila Tavares is the CNE Executive Secretary.

Like in most African countries where women constitute 50% or more of the electorate, Cabo Verdeans are yearning for more female political representation, including the election of female Presidents as happened in Liberia and Zambia.

For the October 17 presidential vote, the CNE has registered 398,864 voters at home and in the diaspora, including 205,171 women (51.43%), who will cast their ballots in 1,480 polling stations.

One major challenge that awaits the incoming administration is the COVID-induced economic recession, especially the huge reduction in revenue from tourism.

Also, while the country has recorded some 37,635 COVID-19 cases and 340 deaths, relatively low figures compared to the situation elsewhere in the World, it is currently experiencing a major surge per 100,000 population said to be among the highest rates in Africa, according to official figures as of 2nd October, 2021.

Consequently, both leading candidates in the presidential election have promised to provide vaccinations to a large portion of the population and to diversify the country’s sources of income to boost the economy.

The ECOWAS Commission, with the support of GIZ, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (German Development Cooperation Agency), is deploying Long-term Observers (LTOs), including an eight-member Core Team of experts to be joined later by 40 Short-term Observers (STOs), for the close monitoring of the three critical stages of the electoral process, before, during and the immediate post-election periods.

Francis Oke, Head of the ECOWAS Electoral Assistance Division, confirmed that the regional Observation Mission would be headed by Niger’s former Interim President Salou Djibo. As Transitional Head of State, Gen. Djibo (rtd), organized elections and handed power back to the democratically elected government of President Mahamadou Issoufou in 2011.

This followed the February 2010 military coup that toppled the government of President Mamadou Tandja, following his failed attempt to alter the national constitution to extend his tenure.

The CNE chair, Maria Gonçalves and the DPAGE Director General Arlinda Chantre, have both assured that Cabo Verde would deliver a credible and transparent election. This will no doubt bring some relief to pro-democracy advocates, who are worried that the seeming resurgence of military incursion in politics could undermine the consolidation of democracy in the ECOWAS region.

*Paul Ejime is a Consultant on Strategic Communications, Media, Elections and International Affairs.

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