Cameroon holds elections in a time of crisis

2020-02-05

On 9 February over six million Cameroonians will be called to vote in twin legislative and municipal elections. Initially planned for 2018, the polls were postponed twice for organisational and financial reasons. Voting later this week will still take place under tenuous security and political conditions.

Since 2013, Boko Haram has recurrently attacked in the Far North Region of Cameroon bordering Nigeria and Chad (see map). While the country’s defence and security forces have repelled most attacks, Boko Haram maintains sleeper cells in remote enclaves from where it stages deadly sporadic incursions.

Further south-west, armed groups threaten to prevent the vote from taking place. Since 2017 government forces have been fighting a multitude of separatist factions claiming the independence of anglophone regions from a majority francophone Cameroon.

The fighting has forced about 40 000 people to seek refuge in Nigeria and over 450 000 have been internally displaced. This situation accounts for the 2018 presidential election turnout of just 5.36% and 15.94% of voters in the North-West and South-West Regions respectively (see map).

Cameroon
Cameroon
(click on the map for the full size image)

Political tensions added to the security impasse after the 2018 election, which saw President Paul Biya win another seven-year term. Despite losing his appeal at the Constitutional Court, opposition figure Maurice Kamto – the closest contender who officially secured 14% of the vote – claimed he had won.

In January 2019 Kamto was arrested for sedition, insurrection and incitement to violence. This came after a rally organised by his party, the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC), and which had been banned by administrative authorities, ended in violence.

Under pressure internally and externally, Cameroon’s president organised a national dialogue in October 2019 aimed at finding solutions to the anglophone crisis. Among other measures, the dialogue recommended greater autonomy for the anglophone regions.

Two months later a law was passed in Parliament enacting the special status of the North-West and South-West provinces and extending the scope of decentralisation. To further de-escalate political tensions, Kamto was released in October 2019 after eight months of detention. Some have called for the further postponement of the elections until the anglophone crisis is resolved and a more consensual electoral law is passed.

Cameroon’s leading opposition political parties remain ambivalent regarding their participation in the polls. They legitimately criticise the electoral law and the government’s control over the elections’ governing bodies. However, they know that boycotting the polls can affect them negatively.

Biya still uses the machinery of the state to guarantee a single-party type of political domination

In March 1992, at the peak of its popularity, the strongest opposition party at the time – the Social Democratic Front (SDF) – boycotted the legislative elections. It was protesting against the management role in the polls of the Ministry of Territorial Administration. The SDF’s boycott probably prevented the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) from a humiliating electoral defeat, and enabled the emergence of the National Union for Democracy and Progress as the main opposition bloc in Parliament.

The SDF then performed admirably in the October 1992 presidential election. But the party had a relatively weakened institutional position, as the election management rules hadn’t changed much and it had no representatives in Parliament for political leverage. The SDF never really recovered politically from that legislative boycott, and has since always participated in elections.

This partly explains why other political parties haven’t followed the MRC’s decision to boycott this week’s elections. Currently the MRC has only one representative in Parliament, and so will neither be present in the next legislature nor in any of the city councils. This could be a missed opportunity for a party that – though riding on the popularity of its candidate at the last presidential election – has much to lose if it doesn’t secure representation across the country.

Since the re-introduction of multiparty politics in 1992, only seven opposition parties out of over 253 registered political parties have been represented in the 180-seat National Assembly. Biya’s CPDM has won absolute majority since 1997 (see table below) and continues to use the machinery of the state to guarantee a single-party type of political domination.

Despite the extreme centralisation of Cameroon’s political system in which the president supersedes all other institutions and presidential decrees are law, Parliament still plays a crucial deliberative, if less legislative, role.

This is seen in the way the ruling party guarantees its hold on the low threshold of a one-third majority. It uses this position to block discussion of important issues such as the anglophone problem, or seeing bills pass the lower house unopposed, and through the upper house, where the president appoints three out of every 10 senators per region.

Given the difficulties faced by opposition parties to present candidates in all constituencies, the CPDM’s victory is likely in both elections. In the National Assembly, the main issue will be around the designation of the main opposition party, a role currently played by the SDF with 18 seats.

The biggest challenge for these elections remains the capacity of Elections Cameroon (ELECAM) – the national agency tasked with organising, managing and supervising the elections – to organise free and fair elections. Regularly criticised for its perceived bias towards the ruling party and government, ELECAM officials must demonstrate the body’s neutrality and professionalism.

Above all, the 9 February elections are important to renew the legitimacy of Parliament and municipal councils in the wake of a new decentralisation that is expected by many citizens. Unfortunately, the current political and security climate might make that difficult – leaving a permanent marker on the upcoming elections.

Paul-Simon Handy, ISS Senior Adviser and Fonteh Akum, Programme Head, Lake Chad Basin Research, ISS

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