“Politics as Usual” for EG’s Elections

“Politics as Usual” for EG’s Elections

March 30, 2013
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As the legislative elections draw near, many Equatoguineans and pro-democracy advocates are wondering whether they will bring change to Equatorial Guinea, or whether the government will continue to disrespect its citizens’ basic rights.

May 2013 will see legislative elections in Equatorial Guinea, the first since the November 2011 constitutional referendum that approved the addition of a Senate chamber to Equatorial Guinea’s Parliament.  According to the government, the Senate will have 75 members, fifteen of which are to be directly appointed by President Obiang, with the May elections determining who fills the remaining seats.  As the legislative elections draw near, many Equatoguineans and pro-democracy advocates are wondering whether they will bring change to Equatorial Guinea, or whether the government will continue to disrespect its citizens’ basic rights and freedoms, such as the right to freely elect their government representatives.

Equatorial Guinea is a party to several instruments that recognize the freedom of assembly and the closely related freedom of association as basic human rights.   Article 13 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights guarantees the right of citizens to freely participate in government, and Article 10 provides for the right to free association.  The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which Equatorial Guinea signed in January 2011, reflects the commitment to promoting democracy, good governance, human rights, and the right to development.  Furthermore, Equatorial Guinea’s Constitution grants both the freedoms of assembly and association.  However, despite these obligations to respect the basic human rights of its citizens, election results in Equatorial Guinea have historically been one-sided.  President Obiang has been in office since taking the position from his uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema, in a 1979 coup d’etat.  He was reelected with over 95% of the vote in the 1982, 1996, 2002, and 2009 presidential elections, and received 99% of the vote in 1989, when he ran unopposed.  These results are not only an indication of the stronghold President Obiang has on the presidency, but they also demonstrate the lack of public debate typically associated with free elections.

The freedom of assembly found in the Equatoguinean Constitution is seemingly allowed in name only.  There are only two independent political parties; other parties exist, but they are aligned with the Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (“PDGE”), the ruling political party in Equatorial Guinea.  Members of PDGE use their influence to pressure citizens to join; there have been instances where Equatoguineans were denied employment for refusing to join PDGE.  Scholarships and business licenses have also been withheld until allegiance was pledged to PDGE.  And, President Obiang selects government leaders only from among PDGE members.   

Equatorial Guinea’s suppression of press freedom undermines an already broken electoral process.  Elections are a vital key to citizens’ participation in their government; a free press is critical to ensure the voters hear diverse views on national issues and make an informed decision during elections.  But in Equatorial Guinea, state and private media outlets are controlled by President Obiang’s close associates.  Although the government claims it provides campaign financing for all of Equatorial Guinea’s political parties – which, incidentally, were outlawed until 1992 – members of opposing political parties do not receive sufficient funding to conduct a national campaign. The funds they do get come too late to really make a difference on the campaign trail.  Furthermore, PDGE has greater access to state funding than the other political parties, giving them an unfair advantage.

Moreover, the National Electoral Commission, the body in charge of the vote and subsequent tally, is headed by a top PDGE official and one of President Obiang’s cabinet members.  In the past, the police have detained opposition party members shortly before Election Day. In the November 2011 referendum, for example, representatives of opposing political parties were prevented from monitoring the polling placesArmed security guards were present in and around the polling places and citizens were illegally urged to cast their votes publicly. Now that the 2013 legislative elections are approaching, history is repeating itself; there has been an increase in the arbitrary detention of opposing political leaders.  The government of Equatorial Guinea claims it has created a Special Joint Committee of Government-Political Parties to ensure transparency of the electoral census.  However, leading up to past elections – specifically, the December 2002 presidential election – the government has been suspected of inflating census numbers to perpetuate election fraud.

In 2003, the International Bar Association noted in relation to Equatorial Guinea’s path to democracy, “the combined impact of the lack of freedom of speech, press and association has meant that civil society has not been able to develop.”  Ten years later, there are no signs of improvement.  The press in Equatorial Guinea remains one of the world’s most censored, and the freedom of assembly is significantly restricted.  Despite government statements that Equatorial Guinea’s citizens may freely vote in elections, its has not ensured that the free and fair elections the voters are entitled to participate in exist.  Until a truly independent electoral commission exists in Equatorial Guinea, and until there is a free press and unrestricted freedoms of assembly and association, among other things, elections will continue to be politics as usual.

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