The Constitutional Court of Comoros [BBC backgrounder] on Saturday overturned [official report, in French] an extension of the president's term in office, holding that his mandate will end later this month. The court ruled that after the mandate ends on May 26 the president of the Muslim Indian Ocean nation will not be able to dissolve parliament or replace members of the Constitutional Court until the inauguration of a new president. The term extension has been described [Reuters report] by President Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi [official website; BBC profile] as a cost-saving measure intended to synchronize local and federal elections. The law would have postponed elections until November 2011 and has caused tension with the opposition based on the island of Moheli, which was next in line to take over the country's rotating presidency. African Union [official website] Special Envoy José Francesco Madeira has been attempting to broker an agreement [Al Watwan report, in French] between Sambi and the opposition, who have demanded that the presidential elections be held in December. The term extension was approved by voters [AFP report] in a national referendum in May 2009, along with changes to the Comoros Constitution [text, in French] that establish Islam as the state religion and give the president the ability to dissolve parliament. The law was approved by the parliament in March of this year.
Under the current constitution, which took effect in 2002, the presidency is rotated every four years between candidates from the islands of Anjouan, Moheli, and Grand Comore. Sambi, of Anjouan, was elected [BBC report] to the presidency in 2006, defeating two other candidates from the same island. Former president Azali Assoumani [allAfrica profile, in French] of Grand Comore handed over power soon after in the first peaceful transition of power in Comoros since independence from France in 1975. Currently, Freedom House [advocacy website] ranks [report, PDF] Comoros as one of only two electoral democracies in the Arab world, along with Mauritania. Since independence Comoros has faced ongoing political instability, resulting in twenty coups and coup attempts and violent secession bids by the islands of Anjouan and Moheli. The most recent coup saw Assoumani take power in 1999.