Or how the parliamentary opposition shot itself in the foot in 1992...
By Dibussi Tande
The Republic of Senegal has a new president following run-off elections which resulted in the defeat of outgoing President Abdoulaye Wade by Macky Sall, his one-time protégé and former Prime Minister. One of the main reasons for Macky's victory is Senegal’s two-round electoral system, which calls for a second round of voting if no candidate obtains more that 50% of votes cast. This is unlike countries such as Cameroon which have a one-round/first-past-the-post electoral system.
In 1992, Cameroon's National Assembly failed to vote on a motion instituting the 2-round system.
In the first round of voting, President Wade obtained 34.81% of votes cast while Sall obtained 26.58%. If this had been the first-past-the-post system practiced in Cameroon, Wade would still be President of Senegal...
The two-round system is a potent tool for dislodging sit-tight incumbents, especially in the face of a splintered opposition (there were 14 candidates in the first round of elections in Senegal). Not surprisingly, there have been strident debates on Cameroonian forums about the need to adopt the two-round system in the country, along with questions why this system has never been a central element in the political discourse in Cameroon.
What many don't realize is that just prior to the first multiparty presidential election of October 1992, the two-round system was hotly debated in the newly elected opposition-dominated multiparty parliament. A motion to adopt the two-round election system was withdrawn at the last minute in a game of political horsetrading between the ruling CPDM and the UPC leadership. Two-decades later, the Cameroon opposition is still paying the price of that act of political hara kari.
Here’s a look-back at the historic parliamentary debates of 1992 whose outcome still haunts Cameroon to this day:
On September 8, 1992, Parliament was convened for an extraordinary session to debate and adopt Bill no. 524/PJL/AN laying down conditions for electing the President of the Republic. Contrary to stipulations in the standing orders of the national assembly, MPs were handed copies of the draft bill on the eve of the session with little time to study it.
The CPDM Draft Bill
Bill no. 524/PJL/AN contained 119 articles which were not fundamentally different from the 1973 law that governed elections during the one-party era, that is, apart from a few new clauses which the opposition claimed were meant to favor the incumbent:
- A one-round or first-past-the-post system which exploited the opposition’s inability to select a single candidate;
- A 1.5 million Francs CFA deposit instead of the original 200,000Francs CFA supposedly out of the reach of most political parties;
- Three years of continuous residency for all candidates which disqualified the UNDP’s Bello Bouba Maigari;
- The absence of an independent electoral commission and the control of the entire electoral process by the CPDM-controlled Ministry of Territorial Administration which was also solely responsible to rule on the eligibility of prospective candidates;
- A National Vote Counting Committee dominated by government appointed functionaries.
The debates in parliament focused primarily on two key issues; the type of voting system and the residency clause.
One-round vs. Two-round Electoral System
The debate over the appropriate electoral system for Cameroon pitted supporters of the one-round or first-past-the-post system, where the candidate with the majority of votes is declared the winner, and the two-round system where run-off or second round elections are held if no candidate obtains more than 50 per cent of the votes.
The UNDP and UPC argued that the one-round system, which the CPDM insisted was practiced by “advanced democracies such as Britain and the United States,” was appropriate only in countries with a two-party system. They insisted that the one-round system was anti-democratic in countries such as Cameroon which had a plethora of political parties because it was unlikely that any single candidate would obtain up to 50 per cent of votes cast. Consequently, a president elected under such circumstances would lack legitimacy. This was the reason why other “advanced democracies” such as France or new African democracies such as Benin and Congo had opted for the two-round system which gave legitimacy to the eventual winner.
The Biya regime however insisted that the one-round system was most appropriate for Cameroon because it “was less complicated, less expensive and less logistically demanding that a two-round system” (NDIIA, 1993: 23).
However, as Gros (1995) has pointed out, the ruling party’s preference for the one-round system was driven by less altruistic considerations:
The constant infighting that went on within the upper ranks of the opposition coalition was a huge help to President Biya. Painfully aware of the problem it faced, the "hard core" of the Cameroonian opposition sought to mitigate this difficulty by demanding a balloting system with two or more rounds, so that even if the opposition parties could not agree upon a single candidate during the first round, they might have a chance of getting one of their challengers into a runoff with the incumbent. (p. 120)
The Residency Clause
The UNDP and UPC felt particularly targeted by the three-year residency clause which automatically eliminated their respective presidential candidates. They therefore insisted that the residency clause be scrapped. On September 9, the plenary session was suspended to allow a 30-man constitutional law committee to polish the draft bill in conference. During its deliberations, the committee reduced the three-year residency to one year, thereby making the UNDP’s Bello Bouba eligible to run for presidency, but still excluding the UPC’s Hogbe Nlend.
On 16 September, the vote on the electoral system was brought up before the plenary session. As MPs were getting ready to vote on a UPC amendment calling for a two-round system which had just been read out by Thomas Melone, Augustin Kodock, the UPC Secretary-General, mounted the rostrum and unilaterally withdrew the amendment as opposition MPs, including those of the UPC, watched in disbelief. “Kodock’s decision to support the government position effectively ended parliamentary opposition to the government’s proposed first-past-the-post system. The parliament then moved on to incorporate the single-round system into the electoral code” (NDIIA, 1993: 23).
The day’s drama continued when the amendment reducing the residency of candidates to one year was brought before the house. In a surprise move, the MDR abandoned its ally the CPDM and threw its lot with the oppposition which was in a favor of a less restrictive residency clause that would allow Hogbe Nlend to take part in the elections. With the opposition having a clear majority on the issue with 92 votes against the CPDM’s 88, the vote was supposed to be a mere formality. However, to the consternation of the members of the opposition and to the relief of the CPDM, the amendment was “magically” defeated by 95 votes for and 85 against! It was later alleged that the Koddock-led faction of the UPC, which was determined to frustrate Hogbe Nlend’s presidential bid, exploited Parliament’s secret ballot procedure to vote against the measure.
On September 17, 1992, the President signed the bill into law. Another decree signed that same day convened the electorate to the polls on Sunday, October 11, 1992.