By Mark Michael
The Rev. Wavel Ramkalaran, whose political career emerged from a vocation to prophetic preaching, was elected president of Seychelles on October 25, in the small island nation’s first peaceful transition of power since its independence from Britain in 1976. Ramkalawan, 59, has been leader of the country’s Seychelles National Party since its founding in 1994, and has been the party’s candidate in the last six presidential elections. He was sworn into office the following day at the State House in Victoria, the national capital.
Seychelles’ original president, James Mancham, was overthrown in a bloodless coup by prime minister France-Albert Rene just a year after independence. Rene created a single-party socialist state under the control of his socialist Seychelles People’s Progressive Front. His regime was marked by widespread torture and espionage and it maintained social control through the National Youth Service, a military-style organization that indoctrinated teenagers in the party’s ideology.
Because of strict government censorship of the press, clergy in the predominantly Roman Catholic country were the only public figures with relative freedom to speak out against abuses. Ramkalaran, who was ordained in 1985, had recently returned from studies at Birmingham University in the U.K. and was serving in an Anglican parish near Victoria, the largest city and capital, when he encountered people who had suffered at the hands of the regime.
“Being a politician was not a job I wanted to do, but seeing so many abuses while being a priest, I had to do something to change the abuses happening in Seychelles,” he told an interviewer from the Seychelles Culture Ministry. A 1990 sermon of Ramkalaran’s that was broadcast on national radio is widely described as a watershed moment in creating pressure for a return to democratic norms, and Rene announced a return to multiparty rule in late 1991.
That year, Ramkalaran joined other activists in forming the Parti Seselwa, the republic’s first registered alternative party. It would merge with several other opposition parties to form the Seychelles National Party in 1994. Ramkalaran was elected to the National Assembly in 1998, and represented his local constituency, St. Louis, in the legislative body until his election as president. He ran against candidates of Rene’s People’s Progressive Front in each presidential election since 1998, losing by only 182 votes to the SPPF candidate in 2015 (63,893 votes were cast, an impressive 90% turnout in the tiny country).
The most recent election campaign in Seychelles focused heavily on proposals for economic recovery for the islands, whose tourism-dependent economy has suffered heavily from COVID-19 travel restrictions. Per-capita, Seychelles is among the wealthiest African nations, but the International Monetary Fund predicts that the nation’s economy will contract by 13.8% in 2020. Ramkalaran has promised to raise the minimum wage. The islands, famed for their natural beauty and rare wildlife, also are deeply threatened by rising sea levels due to climate change.
Ramkalaran has pledged to work closely with his defeated rival, Danny Faure. “Mr. Faure and I are good friends,” he said, “And an election does not mean the end of one’s contributions to one’s motherland. In this election there were no losers, there were no winners. Our country was given the opportunity as the ultimate winner.” The U. S. government congratulated the nation’s citizens on its “orderly and free” election, saying “your historic election is evidence that Seychelles has become a truly democratic nation.”
The new president, whose grandfather was an immigrant from Bihar, India, grew up in an Anglican family. He was in active parish ministry for much of his early political career, serving as rector of Holy Saviour parish in Anse Royal and assisting at St. Luke’s in Bel Ombre. He took a sabbatical from clerical duties in 2005 but remains a priest in good standing.
He is affectionately called “Father” by his supporters and says that he doesn’t see a deep conflict between his priestly and political duties. Several years ago, he told an interviewer, “Firstly, I am a messenger of God. Being a politician and a priest is to be a messenger for the people. Some people see it as a conflict, but I see it as a way to help people by being their messenger.”
Very few Anglican clergy have held elected office, though Anglican bishops have always served in Britain’s House of Lords. Until 2001, Anglican clergy were disqualified from standing for election as members of parliament in the UK and in other elected bodies, like the European Parliament.
The tiny island nation of Vanuatu, another former British colony, is the only significant exception. Its founding prime minister, Walter Lini, was an Anglican priest, as was one of its presidents, John Bani, who served as head of state from 1998 until 2004. The Rev. John Danforth, former U. S. Senator from Missouri and former U. S. Ambassador to the United Nations, is an Episcopal priest and was an associate at St. Alban’s parish in Washington, D.C. while serving in Congress.