Cabo Verde elections: How much of a party animal is President Fonseca?
As Cabo Verde votes in presidential elections this Sunday, the incumbent’s links with the ruling party may turn out to be a mixed blessing.
On 2 October, Cabo Verde will go the polls for the third time this year, following legislative and municipal elections in March and September respectively. This time around, the West African island nation’s 350,000 registered voters will cast their ballot to pick a president.
Voters in the archipelago’s ten islands – plus some in the diaspora abroad – will get to choose between three candidates: the incumbent Jorge Carlos Fonseca, who is running for a second term; his main challenger and university rector Albertino Graça; and the veteran political figure Joaquim Monteiro, who came in last in 2011 with under 2% of the vote.
Since the establishment of electoral democracy in 1991, the office of the presidency has officially been separated off from political parties, which are not allowed to submit candidates. This is because the president is supposed to impartially oversee the political system, while the prime minister holds most of the executive power.
However, in reality, presidential elections over the past 25 years have been dominated by Cabo Verde’s two leading political parties: The African Party of Independence of Cabo Verde (PAICV) and the Movement for Democracy (MpD). These parties have played a significant role in mobilising resources and voters for their preferred candidates, and no aspirant has ever won without the open support of one of these two major organisations.
In the upcoming vote, the role of political parties looks like it will be as important as ever, though in sometimes contradictory ways.
Life of the party
For the first two decades of its electoral democracy, the results of Cabo Verde’s presidential elections always reflected those of its legislative elections. That meant that from 1991 to 2001, the MpD held a majority in parliament while its candidate António Mascarenhas occupied the presidential palace. And that from 2001 to 2011, the PAICV was control of parliament while its former leader, Pedro Pires, held the presidency.
But in 2011, this pattern was broken. The then ruling PAICV managed its process of choosing its candidate poorly, leading to two party-affiliated contestants joining the race against the MpD’s Fonseca. This split the PAICV’s vote, making it easier for Fonseca to emerge victorious in the second round run-off.
In that election, Fonseca was also able to garner some support by painting the PAICV’s control of parliament as a weakness. The MpD’s candidate questioned the wisdom of having the same party lead both the government and presidency, declaring “it may not be convenient to place all the eggs in the same basket”.
His argument proved somewhat effective in helping him secure the presidency. But five years later, those words have come back to haunt him. He is being backed by the MpD party once again, and earlier this March, legislative elections saw his party romp back to power.
This means that it is now Albertino Graça, the PAICV’s favoured candidate, who is making the case for political balance, portraying Fonseca as being too close to the MpD. Graça’s campaign has also attacked Fonseca for the number of foreign trips he has taken, with his “dense delegations” squandering “the money of the people”.
For his part, Fonseca has backtracked on his comments five years ago, claiming the dangers of unified government are in fact a myth – though at the same time, he has also tried to distance himself from the MpD and present himself as an independent thinker.
This latter project was more difficult for him by a controversy earlier this year that emerged around the nomination of new ambassadors. On 20 July, after forming a new government, the MpD put forward three names for ambassadorial positions, all three of whom are high-level party officials or activists. Cabo Verde is not immune to patronage politics.
This put Fonseca, whose job it is to approve the appointments, between a rock and a hard place. Back in 2011, he had denied the PAICV’s ambassadorial nomination of Mario Matos on the basis that he is “excessively party-minded”, and the same could easily be said of the MpD’s nominations this year. If Fonseca approved them, he would be accused of hypocrisy. But if he rejected them, he might risk losing the crucial support of the MpD.
Unable to come up with a decision, Fonseca avoided making one at all. He suspended his mandate and passed over responsibility to President of the National Assembly Jorge Santos, who promptly confirmed the nominations. Fonseca’s self-suspension, which was taken 66 days prior to the election, was certainly unusual given that the start of electoral campaigns was only due to start 49 days before the vote.
Turnout and burnout
In spite of these various political predicaments, Fonseca is still the most likely to win the election this Sunday. The wining tide of the MpD is too strong at the moment to be stopped, while the PAICV is demoralised after already suffering landslide defeats in legislative and municipal elections this year. Fonseca also has all the advantages of incumbency.
However, if Fonseca’s mandate is renewed, one would be wrong to assume this means Cabo Verde’s half-a-million population is happy with the status quo. Although the country is considered to be one of Africa’s most democratic states, its political system is key to the elite’s primitive accumulation of capital. And on these small islands, conspicuous consumption by elites does not go unnoticed.
According a 2014 survey by Afrobarometer, more than 50% of citizens are distrustful of key institutions and the political system in general. Amidst this disillusionment, turnout in the parliamentary elections this year fell to just 66% from 76% in 2011. This trend is likely to be seen this Sunday too. Presidential elections usually attract fewer voters than legislative elections, and Cabo Verdeans seem exhausted after around a year of electioneering and largely uninspired by the choice on offer.
Abel Djassi Amado is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Simmons College, US.