In Seychelles, 62 939 of the idyllic island’s 71 932 eligible voters quietly turfed out the Parti Lepep (PL – People’s Party) which, under different guises, had held sway since 1977. It was then, just one year after independence from the United Kingdom (UK), that Marxist Prime Minister Parti Lepep ousted centre-rightist president James Mancham in a coup, and quickly imposed a one-party Marxist state in the classic post-independence manner.
For a while, Seychelles became a microcosmic caricature of post-independence Africa in other ways too, including several abortive mutinies and coups. In 1981, one was led by the notorious British-Irish ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare and his motley band of mercenaries from South Africa and elsewhere, masquerading as a rugby club dubbed the Ancient Order of Frothblowers.
The attempt failed because one of the mercenaries accidentally got into the ‘something to declare’ queue on arrival at the Mahé airport, and his rifle was discovered in his suitcase. The coup attempt was backed by the South African apartheid government and, some say, Washington. It was not the first time, of course, that Pretoria – with suspected United States approval – intervened to try to topple a Marxist government. Meanwhile, several enemies of René were being mysteriously murdered in exile.
The SNP and four smaller parties had done what African opposition parties seldom do. They joined forces to form the Linyon Demokratik Seselwa (LDS) – the Seychelles Democratic Alliance.
But, as time passed, René’s Marxism mellowed and moderated and Seychelles settled into normality. Like many other leaders of one-party states, René was forced by international pressure to allow multi-party democracy after the Cold War ended. In the country’s first electoral contest, in 1993, René easily beat Mancham, who had just returned from exile, in the presidential election. René’s Seychelles People’s Progressive Front (SPPF) – the predecessor of the PL – trounced Mancham’s Democratic Party (DP) in the legislative elections.
This was to be the basic pattern for the next 23 years, though Mancham and the DP meanwhile lost ground to other opposition leaders and René retired in 2004, to be replaced as SPPF leader and national president by his deputy, James Michel.
In May 2015, Michel won a successive third term, though by the narrowest of margins, against Wavel Ramkalawan, leader of the then main opposition, the Seychelles National Party (SNP). And the PL already enjoyed a virtual monopoly in Parliament, because the SNP had boycotted the 2011 legislative elections, claiming they would not be fair.
But that comfortable position for Michel changed last week. The SNP and four smaller parties had done what African opposition parties seldom do. They joined forces to form the Linyon Demokratik Seselwa (LDS) – the Seychelles Democratic Alliance.
And in last week’s elections, with an 87% turnout, the LDS won 19 seats to the 14 won by the LP, giving it a clear majority. LDS leader Roger Mancienne called it a ‘historic victory.’ Michel and the LP graciously conceded defeat and Michel promised to work with the LDS-controlled National Assembly. Yet Seychelles is embarking on what promises to be a challenging new chapter of ‘co-habitation’ politics, as Claude Morel, the country’s High Commission to South Africa describes it.
If the LDS election manifesto is to be believed, the new majority party aims to make the island state something of a model democracy. Seychelles now has an ambiguous democratic status. Freedom House, for example, rates it only as ‘partly free’ – mainly because of the virtual monopoly of power the LP has enjoyed for four decades. This has enabled it to get a lock grip on much of the economy, state institutions and the media, though Morel insists the ‘Seychelles media is free and there are more anti-government press publishing than pro-government’.