President dissolves parliament

Sao Tome and Principe President Fradique de Menezes, dissolved parliament on Tuesday and called early legislative elections, following a standoff with the assembly over constitutional reforms.

De Menezes dissolved the 55-seat assembly in a decree. He was quoted by Agencia de Noticias de Portugal (Lusa), as saying there was a "serious political crisis" in the country and lawmakers had used "insulting language" instead of dialogue with him. Elections will be held April 13, the decree added.

The stand-off arose after a constitutional reform package limiting presidential powers was approved by a parliamentary majority but vetoed on Thursday by de Menezes, who instead wanted a referendum on the reforms. Parliament had said constitutional reforms were needed to clarify ambiguities in the country's separation of powers and to avoid reoccurring political crises, Lusa said.

The main political parties, the Sao Tome and Principe Liberation Movement (MLSTP) and the coalition of the Democratic Movement Force for Change and the Party of Democratic Convergence, (MDFM-PCD) criticised the veto.

On Tuesday, they reacted strongly to the dissolution of the assembly. The MDFM-PCD, which backed de Menezes to win presidential elections in September 2001, said it was "unconstitutional" because other parties had not been consulted. MLSTP officials described it as a "black page" in Sao Tome's history.

The archipelago has been dogged by political crises for some time. In October, de Menezes dissolved a government of national unity following complaints from the army over promotions. He replaced a three-party government of Gabriel Costa with a woman Prime Minister, Maria das Neves.

On 24 September, de Menezes downplayed differences within the army but admitted there had been some unease over his promotion of two officers to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel earlier.

The dissolved parliament was elected on 3 March 2002, again in an early election called by de Menezes after failing to agree with then prime minister, Gilherme Posser da Costa, on the composition of a new cabinet. Costa's MLSTP party had won most seats in elections in 1998, while de Menezes came from the opposition. Instead the president bypassed parliament and formed a government of "presidential initiative".

Sao Tome and Principe is an island chain just off the West African country of Gabon, and has a population of some 150,000 people.