With three weeks left until elections in Tanzania, East Africa’s most populous nation, tensions are rising ahead of what is expected to be tightest electoral race in the country’s history.
The front-runner in the presidential race appears to be John Magufuli, candidate for the long-ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), who is hoping to succeed President Jakaya Kikwete, who is stepping down after the constitutional two-term limit.
But Magufuli, 55, is facing a stiff challenge, from the main opposition parties who have rallied around ex-prime minister Edward Lowassa, 62, who recently defected from the CCM to the opposition Chadema, heading a coalition of parties.
“Both candidates seem to be propagating similar policies… such as fighting graft, conquering poverty, solving unemployment and land disputes,” University of Dar es Salaam lecturer Benson Bana told AFP.
Analysts have warned that the unusually tight race could spark tensions.
As well as a presidential race, voters will also be casting ballots in parliamentary and local polls on October 25, including on the semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar.
“While the CCM clearly has some strong electoral advantages, there are growing indications that its long-term grip on power is continuing to dissipate,” former top US diplomat to Africa Johnnie Carson wrote for African Arguments.
“A tight election or the perception of a rigged outcome could increase the chance of post-election violence in what has been one of Africa’s leading democracies and most peaceful countries.”
Change is inevitable with Kikwete standing down—unlike neighbouring Burundi where President Pierre Nkurunziza defied violent protests to win a third term in July, or Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo, where leaders are believed to be wanting to run once again.
Six other hopefuls are in the race.
But it is the campaign rallies of the CCM’s Magufuli—currently minister of works— and Chadema’s Lowassa—prime minister from 2005-2008 before resigning over corruption allegations despite stringent denials—that attract the largest crowds.
Lowassa joined the opposition after losing to Magufuli in his bid to become the party’s presidential candidate in July.
Both Magufuli and Lowassa have made repeated calls for the preservation of peace and national unity in speeches denouncing tribalism and religious violence.
Those fears are real, analysts say.
Despite impressive economic growth, little of that has trickled down to the majority, and the country remains very poor by regional and international standards, the World Bank says.
Agriculture is the key sector, providing a quarter of gross domestic product and employing three-quarters of the population.
“Tanzania’s ‘normalcy’ risks obscuring simmering tensions,” the Open Society warned in a recent article.
“With two-thirds of its 50 million citizens living in poverty, few enjoy the benefits of the country’s remarkable economic growth, which has averaged around seven percent over the past decade.”
Political party ‘militias’
Campaigning—which began on August 22 and will close a day before voting on October 24—has been largely peaceful, police spokeswoman Advera Senso said, reporting only a “few isolated cases” of trouble.
But others say the potential for violence remains.
“All three major political parties have militias, which have been growing in force over the past several months, particularly in Zanzibar,” the Open Society added.
“If intimidation practises continue during the campaign period, with no judicial remedies to account for misconduct, Tanzanians may find themselves looking for other, less peaceful ways to express their grievances and settle disputes.”
The ruling CCM party has dominated politics since modern Tanzania was formed in 1964, and currently has two-thirds of seats in parliament.
But it has been weakened by internal splits and a string of graft scandals, and recently suffered defections of high-profile members—including ex-prime minister Frederick Sumaye and former home affairs minister Lawrence Masha—to the opposition coalition.
Other parties in the opposition coalition are NCCR-Mageuzi, National League for Democracy(NLD) and Civic United Front (CUF).
In the central town of Iringa, police this week arrested 63 people believed to be from the opposition Chadema party, including a former MP.
“These people, riding motorcycles, blocked roads, others held illegal assembly and defied orders to disperse,” local police chief Ramadhani Mungi said.
Chadema chairman Freeman Mbowe has previously complained of various “unfair statements” by the ruling CCM while campaigning.
“On several occasions CCM leaders have insulted our presidential candidate, they utter embarrassing statements designed to ridicule or defame him,” Mbowe said.
“As Tanzanians prepare to vote, Tanzania’s democracy shows signs of regress,” the Open Society added.