Tanzania Set for Tightest Election in History

No matter who wins, this island of stability in East Africa could be headed for chaos.

A boy runs with a flag during a ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) rally in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on October 21, 2015. CCM's party's candidate John Magufuli hopes to succeed President Jakaya Kikwete in what is seen as the tightest electoral race in Tanzania's history, as the main opposition parties unite around ex-prime minister Edward Lowassa, 61, who recently defected from the CCM. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL HAYDUK        (Photo credit should read Daniel Hayduk/AFP/Getty Images)
A boy runs with a flag during a ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) rally in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on October 21, 2015. CCM's party's candidate John Magufuli hopes to succeed President Jakaya Kikwete in what is seen as the tightest electoral race in Tanzania's history, as the main opposition parties unite around ex-prime minister Edward Lowassa, 61, who recently defected from the CCM. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL HAYDUK (Photo credit should read Daniel Hayduk/AFP/Getty Images)

MWANZA, Tanzania – On the last day of Edward Lowassa’s campaign swing through this sleepy mining hub on the shores of Lake Victoria, a crowd gathered outside the opposition leader’s hotel to see him off. A cheer roared through the hordes as he exited the Gold Crest hotel, an old standby for the country’s political elite, and grew louder as he approached the black van that would ferry him to the airport and on to the next stop in his whirlwind campaign tour in the waning days of Tanzania’s presidential contest.

The rally at the Gold Crest was a reminder of the kind of unbridled enthusiasm that Lowassa has managed to harness going into this year’s general election, scheduled for Oct. 25, which many analysts predict will be the tightest race since Tanzania transitioned to multiparty democracy in 1992. The opposition leader enjoys broad-based support among working-class voters and under-employed young people, many of whom feel that their government has failed them. But both Lowassa’s CHADEMA party and the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, which has been in power for 23 years, are warning of electoral fraud and allegedly marshaling youth militias that could disrupt the vote. As a result, the first real test of Tanzanian democracy could also shatter the unwavering stability that has been the hallmark of the East African country’s politics since independence in 1961.

Lowassa — who is isn’t quite as trim in person as he appears in the photos plastered across billboards and flyers throughout the country — is hardly the crusading political outsider one would expect to challenge the establishment. A former prime minister from the ruling CCM, he defected from the party earlier this year only after it became clear that he would not receive the nomination for president. He is also a veritable poster-child for the entrenched political corruption that has alienated voters across the country. As one leaked 2008 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam noted, “Lowassa’s corrupt activities have been an open secret throughout Tanzania for many years.”

In 2008, Lowassa was forced to resign the premiership after it was revealed that his government paid a Texas-based generator company more than $100,000 per day over six months for electricity that was never supplied. Before that, he was sacked from his post as land minister in President Ali Mwinyi’s government after he became embroiled in another major corruption scandal. Yet the CCM stalwart managed to survive both of these setbacks, and until July of this year, when the ruling party’s ethics committee declined to put his name forward for the presidency, Lowassa was still actively pursuing its nomination for the highest office in the land. When the CCM instead selected John Magufuli, a 20-year parliamentary veteran untainted by allegations of corruption, Lowassa decamped for the opposition.

He landed at the helm of CHADEMA, a grassroots political party that has been gaining steam since it was founded in 1992. The party went from holding just four seats in the National Assembly in the 1995 to holding 49 seats today. This year, CHADEMA joined up with three other opposition parties to form an umbrella coalition known as UKAWA, which is mounting a coordinated campaign to wrest control of the parliament. (It is running only one candidate against the CCM in each constituency, so as to avoid splitting the opposition vote.) According to polls conducted by the non-profit civic organization Twaweza, CCM is the clear front-runner, leading CHADEMA by 40 points. But other polls show a much tighter race, and some even put Lowassa on top. In any case, the opposition leader has joined the ruling party in declaring victory in advance of the election, a move that could inflame tensions in the event of a close finish.

In a year that has seen post-election violence erupt in Burundi and sporadic clashes in both the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Congo-Brazzaville, where leaders are contemplating unconstitutional third-terms in office, the Tanzanian election has become a symbol of democratic progress as well as of the dangerously high expectations often generated by competitive elections. Unlike in Burundi, the incumbent president is stepping down after his second term. And unlike in either of the Congos, there is no discussion of altering constitutional term-limits. But regardless of who wins the elections on Oct. 25, there is a chance that Tanzanians will see their normally stolid political system upended by supporters of the losing party.

“The likelihood [of post-election violence] is high,” said Emmanuel Tayari, a Tanzanian geopolitical analyst. “But I believe it will be prevented because Tanzanian security services have prepared a lot. The main reason the expectation is high is because you have a lot of young voters who are voting for the first time. So for them it’s more than just voting. It’s like a football game. It’s a competition. It’s a competition about politics.”

Part of the concern stems from claims that both of the leading parties have trained youth militias of the kind that were used to sow chaos before and after the Burundian election. The CCM and CHADEMA both maintain security forces — the Green Guard and the Red Brigade, respectively — but they claim the armed factions are used solely to protect high-ranking party members. Last month, the National Election Commission (NEC) asked national police forces to investigate allegations of a plot to use militias to “cause trouble,” as Damian Lubuva, president of the NEC, put it. No findings have been reported.

Other analysts say that fears of election violence are overblown, and that mounting regional unrest may actually have a moderating effect on the Tanzanian contest. “It’s interesting how cognizant Tanzanians have been this time around of the international focus on the country,” said Adjoa Anyimadu, a researcher focusing on Africa at Chatham House in London. “I think Tanzanians are keen to differentiate themselves from” the kind of electoral violence that has wracked neighboring countries.

What is clear is that CCM is headed for its toughest electoral contest in memory. Part of the opposition’s momentum can be traced to the government’s own biometric registration project, which has increased the number of registered first-time and youth voters, who disproportionately favor CHADEMA. But the rise of CHADEMA and the rest of the UKAWA opposition coalition is also the result of decades of CCM policies that have failed to generate employment or translate impressive growth rates into broad-based prosperity. Last year, Tanzania clocked seven percent GDP growth, but nearly 30 percent of residents remain trapped below the poverty line. According to one recent survey, only 14 percent of young people reported working a formal, wage-earning job.

The promise of a fresh start with a more modern party has drawn millions of voters to CHADEMA. According to many, it is the promise of rapid development, not Lowassa, that is the cause of excitement. “I need changes,” said Witness Masunga, a homemaker and mother of two who lives in a town outside Mwanza, in the country’s northwest. “In the last election, CCM promised free education and free medical services in hospitals, but they haven’t done it. I need changes, then maybe things will get better.”

Reginald Munisi, Lowassa’s campaign director, has done his best to harness the electorate’s disenchantment with the ruling party’s economic performance. “CCM doesn’t know how business works,” he told Foreign Policy in an interview in the commercial capital of Dar es Salaam. “Basically the ruling party is a leftist party and from initiation they have been investing more in government doing everything. But the private sector has never been a priority to them.”

With an anti-corruption crusade off the table because of the candidate’s checkered past, CHADEMA is campaigning on promises of free education, enhanced employment opportunities, and a better environment for business, including lower taxes and a less cumbersome licensing process for mining companies. CHADEMA has also put forward a bold proposal to decentralize the government’s cumbersome administrative architecture, devolving more power to regional authorities. “We believe in governance, not government,” said Munisi.

Magufuli and the CCM, meanwhile, say they plan to retain the strong central government, one of the legacies of Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, whose socialist policies formed the basis of the country’s first independent government. A spokesman for the ruling party, January Makamba, also highlighted the CCM’s emphasis on social services, which he says differentiates it from CHADEMA and explains its popularity among female voters. Internal polls show women in semi-urban and rural areas favoring the CCM by a ratio of three to one, Ally Abdallah, a researcher for the ruling party, told Foreign Policy.

Both parties have already begun to sound the alarm about the potential for electoral fraud. Makamba, the CCM spokesman, said he expects voter intimidation to keep supporters of the ruling party, particularly women, from the polls. “We have seen in parliamentary elections before this phenomenon of young men scaring away women voters by going early to vote and then hanging around the voting stations causing chaos, saying they are defending their votes [from being rigged].”

The NEC requires that voters remain at least 200 meters away from polling stations after they have cast their ballots. Because of heightened concerns about voter intimidation this year, however, the rule has been extended to require citizens to leave polling stations altogether after voting. “If people hang around polling stations, what is their intention if not causing chaos? They need to vote and go home to wait for the results,” Justice Damian Lubuva, the chair of the NEC, told the Kenyan newspaper the Citizen.

CHADEMA argues that keeping voters from monitoring the polls is itself an act of voter suppression, opening up a window for ballots to be tampered with after everyone leaves. It has committed itself to remaining at the polls throughout the day in violation of the NEC’s decree, although it says it will respect the previous 200-meter regulation. The fact that international election monitors will be deployed at the roughly 65,000 polling stations across Tanzania on Election Day hardly guarantees that voting will be free and fair, CHADEMA supporters say. “The people who are monitoring it don’t know anything about the polling station,” said Munisi, Lowassa’s campaign director.

Munisi accused the ruling party of already rigging the registration process. He said that motorbikes, small shops, and other inanimate objects had been registered — and that they are unlikely to cast their ballots for the opposition. Makamba, the CCM spokesman, did not deny this accusation. He said it would be discussed in a meeting, although he did not specify with whom.

Peaceful democratic politics in Tanzania, an island of stability in the volatile East African region, is a matter of pride for most citizens. With both major parties preemptively crying foul, however, it may be difficult to prevent disgruntled losers from upending that beloved calm. “Some people would say, this is Tanzania, its peaceful, there can’t be trouble,” said Pastor John Cottey, a British transplant to Tanzania who led his Mwanza congregation in a fast for peace and justice ahead of the elections. “But that would be naïve, because people are people and if you give people hope and then take it away, then people get angry.”

Amanda Sperber is a journalist based in Nairobi and Mogadishu. Twitter: @hysperbole

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