April 2, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
On April 14th, Cameroon’s voters will head to the polls to establish the country’s first-ever upper house, the Senate (Sénat). 70 seats are up for election, the majority expected to be won by the ruling party, the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement/ Rassemblement Démocratique du Peuple Camerounais (CPDM/ RDPC). The remaining 30 seats will be appointed by President Paul Biya.[i] Creation of the Senate After independence, French Cameroon merged with neighboring British Cameroon to create a federation in 1961 and a unified state in 1972. The country has historically had a highly centralized political system with a powerful executive branch and a unicameral parliament. Officially, Cameroon switched to a bicameral system in 1996, when an amendment to the 1972 Constitution established a 100-seat Senate in addition to the 180-seat National Assembly.[ii] As Head of State, longtime president Paul Biya has exclusive power to convene the Electoral College and call for senatorial elections, although he chose not to do so until 16 years after the Constitution was amended.[iii] On February 27, 2013 Biya finally signed decree N° 2013/056 scheduling senate elections on April 14th, approximately six weeks later. “Indirect Universal Suffrage” In this election, 70 Senators will be chosen by 10,636 electors from 360 local councils.[iv] The remaining 30 seats will be appointed by President Biya. This is embodied in Chapter 1 of Cameroon’s Constitution, Law No. 2006/2005 of July 14, 2006, which states: (1) Each region shall be represented in the Senate by 10 (ten) senators 7 (seven) of whom shall be elected by indirect universal suffrage on a regional basis and 3 (three) appointed by decree of the President of the Republic. Chapter IV Section 11 further states: (1) Senators shall be elected in each region by an electoral college comprising regional and municipal councilors. However, in 2008 parliament amended this clause, exclusively giving municipal councilors power to elect the Senate if its elections were organized ahead of regional council elections. Alongside creating a senate, the 1996 constitutional amendment outlined the establishment of Regional Councils, decentralized bodies in charge of governing the country’s 10 provinces or ‘regions.’ President Biya never called for elections establishing Regional Councils, thus the Electoral College will comprise of municipal councils, 336 of 360 which are dominated by the CPDM.[v] Biya’s decision last year to extend by one year the five-year mandate of parliamentarians and local councilors elected in 2007 similarly reinforces CPDM rule. Threats to Boycott The expiration of local councilors’ mandates has led opposition leaders to claim that the upcoming election is illegal, and argue that senatorial elections should not occur until after new councilors are elected. Social Democratic Front / Front Social-Démocratique (FSD) leader John Fru Ndi threatened to boycott the election, saying “If Mr. Biya does not talk to us, the FSD will make sure that this senatorial election does not hold. I will tell my boys to sharpen their machetes.”[vi] He has since rescinded the threat, and will be running for a Senate seat. The lack of independence of Cameroon’s electoral management body, ELECAM, further stacks the deck in favor of the CPDM. In March of 2010, parliament amended the 2006 law originally creating ELECAM, giving more power to the administration in aspects of the electoral process such as voter registration, vote counting, and electoral dispute resolution. Currently 10 out of 12 members of ELECAM are members of the CPDM. [vii] Most recently, ELECAM released the lists of senatorial candidates, rejecting lists from 4 out of 8 parties, retaining the lists of the CPDM, the FDS, the UDC (Cameroon Democratic Union), and the NUDP (National Union for Democracy and Progress). According to ELECAM’s Board Chair Samuel Fonkam Azu’u, half the candidates’ lists were rejected on grounds of irregularities in materials provided, a lack of gender representation, and the inclusion of under-aged candidates. Although parties were encouraged to petition the Supreme Court for the acceptance of their lists, the likelihood of this occurring is slim as Supreme Court Justices are all appointed by President Biya, casting further doubt onto its impartiality in this election. Conclusion Given these constraints, it is likely that the new Senate will further strengthen CPDM’s dominance. Once established, the Senate will lack the power to impeach the president or otherwise constrain the executive branch. Additionally, the Senate can amend or reject bills made by the National Assembly, which may lead to political gridlock if opposition parties manage to win a majority in the lower house.[viii] The context in which the Senate was established sheds some light on this, as 1996 was the first year during which the opposition parties made significant gains in the municipal elections, and previously Cameroon had held its first multiparty elections, forcing the CPDM’s entry into a governing coalition with MDR and the UPC opposition parties. Thus a 100-member Senate may effectively serve as a buffer to future oppositional success.[ix]