Tight race expected as the Comoros heads to the polls | Africa | DW | 24.03.2019
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Tight race expected as the Comoros heads to the polls

Comorians went to the polls to elect a new president. Although the list of opposition candidates has thinned noticeably, victory for incumbent President Azali Assoumani is far from certain.

There are 12 opposition candidates on the list for the elections in the Comoros on Sunday, but none of them will succeed in throwing incumbent President Azali Assoumani out of office if he has his way.

A total of 19 candidates put their names forward for the March 24 election. However, the Supreme Court — which is primarily composed of Azali's allies — rejected the candidacy of former Finance Minister Mohamed Ali Soilihi and Ibrahim Mohamed Soule of the Juwa Party.

Mohamed Soilihi, a member of the Union for the Development of the Comoros (UPDC), had hoped to defeat President Azali by using his popularity with the public. The court justified its decision by claiming that Mohamed Soilihi had not disclosed part of his estate. Meanwhile, Ibrahim Mohamed Soule was disqualified on the grounds that his application form for the elections was signed by the deputy secretary-general of the party and not the secretary-general himself, Ahmed al-Barwane — who has, however, been in jail for several months.

Read more: 2019: Africa heads into an election year

A thwarted plan

Mohamed Said Mchangama, a political analyst and the director of HaYba FM Radio, believes the exclusion of the two candidates was politically motivated.

"What is clear, or quite evident in Comoros, is that those who represent any kind of serious opposition or hurdle to President Azali are in jail, like [former] President [Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed] Sambi or the governor of Anjouan," he told DW. "Then Mohammed Soilihi, who was the main opposition of the president, and Ibrahim Mohammed Soule were disqualified. To the population, those decisions from the Supreme Court appeared to be quite political."

An infographic showing the location of the Comoro Islands off the eastern coast of Africa

But the would-be candidates haven't disappeared from the political scene altogether: Rather than running for office themselves, they now each support a candidate of their choice.

"Ibrahim Mohamed Soule is now supporting Mahamoudou Ahamada," says Mchangama. Mahamoudou Ahamada, a 49-year-old lawyer of former President Sambi, is an official candidate of the Juwa Party. "Everyone knew [President Azali] didn't want to have an opponent from Juwa, which is the main party," explains Mchangama. "So Juwa took another top candidate who President Azali didn't think had the makings of a serious opponent. But it seems, in fact, that he does." 

Mohamed Ali Soilihi, for his part, is supporting a candidate from his own village, Mchangama says.

Read more: Mysterious uprising in the Comoro Islands

Everyone against Azali

Ahmed Thabit, a former Comorian ambassador, is convinced that the opposition will win.

"People are saying that if the elections are secured, if they are organized in such a way that there is no rigging and foul play, the opposition alliance is definitely [set for] a win," he told DW. "And people are saying that if all 11 candidates from the opposition alliance stick to their declaration that they will back their colleague who will be competing against the outgoing president, then they will definitely win by a majority."

Other candidates include Mouigni Baraka Said Soilihi, the former governor of Grande Comore, who previously ran in the 2016 election, and Fahmi Said Ibrahim, best known as Mohamed Ali Soilihi's right-hand man. Most of the candidates are running as independents.

Presidential candidate Mahamoudou Ahamada speaks to a crowd of supporters in Comoros

Presidential candidate Mahamoudou Ahamada is running for the Juwa Party

Peaceful elections expected, but mood still tense

After winning a controversial referendum in 2018 that allowed him to seek another mandate, President Azali will again stand for re-election as the candidate of the Convention for the Renewal of the Comoros (CRC) party. Azali has been in office since 2016 and previously served terms from 1999 to 2002 and again from 2002 to 2006. Before the referendum, the constitution allowed the presidency to change every five years, with representatives from the country's three main islands, Grande Comore, Anjouan and Moheli, taking turns in the position. Although this is still maintained in principle, a sitting president's five-year term can now be extended once. And so the island of President Azali, Grand Comore — which is also home to the capital, Moroni — may hold the presidency once again. However, the referendum did not enjoy full support from Comorians and triggered violence in parts of the Comoros, leading to clashes between demonstrators and soldiers.

Nevertheless, Mchangama believes the elections will be peaceful. "I do not expect violence, and should Azali lose, I do not think there will be many who will fight for him." The overall impression of the population is that President Azali will not be elected in the first ballot in a transparent election. Even so, the mood in the Comoros remains tense and people are nervous about the outcome. 

"One of Azali's former friends and officers has just announced that he is supporting another candidate and he will not stand idly by should Azali deceive, threaten and use force," says Mchangama.

An old wooden boat moored in the ancient port of the Comoros capital Moroni

Grande Comore is the biggest island in the Comoros and is home to the capital, Moroni

Comoros in the 21st century

Thabit also thinks the election will run smoothly. But he says the population is worried. "People are comparing this election to the 2016 election," he says. "At that time, the elections were secured. There was a military contingent from South Africa and international observers were there and everything went very smoothly. So people think that unless they have something like that, they don't think the elections will be free. People think that if the elections are not secured, then the National Electoral Committee will declare the outgoing president the winner."

The next president will be appointed after the first round of voting on March 24. If a winner cannot be determined, a runoff election will be held on April 21. Whoever secures the top job will have a lot of work to do, says Mchangama, especially when it comes to "energy and health care, as well as infrastructure and education." He says education is one of the key issues for all of the candidates: "The Comoros lacks citizens fit for the 21st century."

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