Sao Tomé & Principe
New constitutional crisis in São Tomé

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President Fradique de Menezes

«An attempted constitutional coup d'état against the President of the Republic»

President Fradique de Menezes

afrol News, 19 January - The republic of São Tomé and Príncipe has been searching for a functional balance between the powers of the presidency and Parliament for almost two years, slipping from one constitutional crisis into another. A compromise draft Constitution approved by two thirds of Parliament is now vetoed by President Fradique de Menezes.

President Menezes on Thursday vetoed the draft Constitution that was to have solved the years of unclear power relations between him and Parliament. His spokesman further confirmed the President would veto it a second time if Parliament did not include his suggestions. The current Constitution however prohibits a second veto by the President when a two-thirds majority has approved new legislation. Some legal experts even maintain the President does not have the right to veto constitutional changes.

On the other hand, constitutional changes must be approved by the President, something Mr Menezes categorically has objected to. The unconstitutional vetoing of the new Constitution however has thrown the nation into a new legal crisis.

All political parties represented in the São Toméan Parliament - which together had arrived at the draft Constitution - on Saturday met to discuss the President's initiative and how to respond to it. All parties, except Mr Menezes' own Democratic Movement (MDFM), have expressed their disagreement with the President.

The Movement for the Liberation of Sao Tomé and Principe (MLSTP), which is the biggest party in the country, today vigorously protested the President's move. MLSTP leader Pinto da Costa in a statement said his party had been surprised by the attitude of President Menezes after the long and "difficult negotiations" to reach at a new Constitution.

The work had included all state agencies, political parties and parliamentary groups, Mr da Costa said, in a process "aimed at preserving a climate of stability and necessary governmental tranquillity for the solution of the serious economic and social problems that persist in the country." The MLSTP leader asked President Menezes to "respect" this commitment shown by the political parties.

The Party of Democratic Convergence (PCD) also protested the President's move. The party named President Menezes' veto unconstitutional and said it would not tolerate such a move. Only Delfim Neves, leader of the pro-Menezes party MDFM, agreed with the President, saying he was "defending the interests of the people of São Tomé and Príncipe." The party however called for new negotiations over the Constitution's draft text. 

The main differences between the parliamentary majority and President Menezes apply to the powers to be given to the Head of State. The President holds that the constitutional changes called for, cutting back his powers, are of such a nature that they need to be presented to the São Toméan citizens in a referendum. 

Presidential spokesman Neves e Silva said that the draft constitution was "an attempted constitutional coup d'état against the President of the Republic," adding the Parliament had so far not been dissolved only "because Fradique de Menezes is a patient man and a democrat." The constitutional revision had not been made in the interest of the state, its citizens and economy, Mr Neves e Silva held, but only because of one man, the current President.

The constitutional crisis in São Tomé started shortly after the election of President Menezes in August 2001. Mr Menezes made use of his constitutional powers and appointed a government close to him, but ignoring the parliamentary majority of the MLSTP - the islands' traditional ruling party. The MLSTP answered by obstructing parliamentary works and thus provoking new elections. 

In a little more than one year, the archipelago has had four different governments, following a period of stable, long-living governments since independence. March 2002 elections, virtually a referendum over the President's powers to appoint a government not based in Parliament - produced a stalemate. São Tomé has since then been ruled by broad coalition governments.

A process to revise the constitution was formally initiated in October last year, after all parties agreed that the current situation of broad but weak governments created an unfortunate political instability. 50 of Parliament's 55 members therefore endorsed a project to look into a revision of the constitution - which is seen as too unclear on the power-sharing between Parliament and President.

The mandate of the group was to look into ways of introducing "a semi-presidential system" into the constitution, not too unlike the current practice on the islands. To create more stability within this framework, one foresaw clearer definitions of competence between the different state institutions, the possible use of referendums and the establishment of a Constitutional Court. 

Sources: Based on Sao Tome govt, parties, press reports and afrol archives

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