The recent falling out between old political allies and the emergence of new alliances in Tanzania has set the stage for the most eagerly anticipated election in the country’s history. It is also an electoral contest that will be closely watched across the region.
The high-profile defection of former prime minister Edward Lowassa from the Chama cha Mapinduzi followed by a spate of resignations by top officials has given the opposition a sense of momentum that has been on display at a number of rallies staged in several towns in recent weeks.
But the opposition Umoja wa Katiba ya Wananchi (Ukawa) alliance will be coming up against a political party machine in CCM that has long been regarded as one of the most disciplined and effective on the continent — one that has not lost a presidential election since 1977..
“This is clearly a unique election,” said Dr Benson Bana, a political scientist at the University of Dar es Salaam.
“The unexpected unity of the political opposition poses an interesting challenge to the ruling party. At the same time, CCM also picked a candidate in John Magufuli who has been distinguished throughout his career as a hard worker and who is not tainted by corruption. This has created an element of excitement and some uncertainty going into the election.”
Across social media and in power circles in East Africa, the campaigns in Tanzania have stirred an excitement that has not been seen in around a Tanzanian election before.
This attention has been underpinned not only by what some pundits describe as the stiffest challenge to the ruling party for more than half a century but also by the tense diplomatic relations between the Tanzanian government and several neighbours during President Jakaya Kikwete’s time in office.
President Kikwete’s old ally turned bitter political rival, Edward Lowassa, has explicitly framed his candidacy as a chance to help Tanzania take its place as a regional economic powerhouse and to fulfill its potential.
“This country will move at a pace never seen before [if I am elected],” Mr Lowassa told a rally at the Kibanda Maiti grounds in Zanzibar on August 17.
“There is no reason why Tanzania, which has far more resources, should be left behind by neighbours like Malawi, Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda. I promise you I will wake up those who are sleeping on the job. Where else do you have port workers clocking off at 6pm and leaving ships unattended, or people doing a 30 minute job in 30 days?”
The reference to the port issue highlights why the election will be followed closely across regional capitals.
In recent years, the most striking development on the regional integration front has been the emergence of the Northern Corridor axis comprising Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan.
Leaders in the these countries have teamed up to endorse a number of big-ticket infrastructure projects to the seeming exclusion of Tanzania and Burundi.
Those developments, which were seen as favouring Kenya’s Mombasa port over Dar es Salaam, saw President Kikwete make an extraordinary speech in the Tanzanian parliament in November 2013 accusing his compatriots of running a campaign of isolation against him.
The outcome of the election could well shape the relations between the various capitals in the region with implications for the future viability of multibillion-dollar investments in new ports in Lamu in Kenya and Bagamoyo in Tanzania.
Underlying the rhetoric over the economics of port efficiency, however, are long-standing geopolitical tensions between various players, particularly Kigali and Dar, over the legacy of the 1994 genocide.
The furious reaction of Paul Kagame’s administration to a May 2013 suggestion by President Kikwete that regional powers hold talks with players such as the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), which stands accused of carrying out the genocide, sent relations between Rwanda and Tanzania into a deep freeze marked by the expulsion of Rwandese refugees from Tanzania and tit for tat withdrawals of diplomats.
Ties between the two parties have improved in recent months but the succession will be watched closely in Rwanda and in Burundi, too, where Tanzania has been one of the parties seeking to manage the crisis triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s third-term bid.
In Uganda, much commentary has focused on whether an opposition party can claim victory through the ballot box and on what that might mean, psychologically, going into the country’s own 2016 presidential election.
But analysts say the more urgent question, considering Tanzania’s historical status as one of the continent’s most stable democracies and its prominent role in regional peace efforts, is how its institutions will cope with what is expected to be a tightly contested election.
Dr Bana says an early casualty has been Tanzania’s reputation for having solid, well-established political parties. This election, he says, will revolve more around personalities, which he describes as an unfortunate development.
Mr Lowassa’s defection to an opposition alliance that had strongly criticised him when he was in the ruling party, particularly during the 2010 election, in relation to his forced resignation over the Richmond power supply scandal has proved a subject for intense debate. At least two leading opposition figures quit the alliance over the former prime minister’s selection as the main candidate.
In several speeches in the past week, Kikwete has made references to the deep pockets of the opposition leader, indirectly questioning his integrity. “No one is going to be able to buy all Tanzanians so that he or she can be elected a leader,” he said.
But opposition politicians such as Singida East MP Tundu Lissu of Chadema dismissed the President’s remarks that many recognised Mr Lowassa as a leader capable of taking Tanzania to a new level and the opposition as a better alternative to the ruling party.
“People don’t vote with their feet in the large numbers we are witnessing unless there is real frustration at the status quo,” he said.
Main opposition party Chadema acting secretary-general Salum Mwalimu told The EastAfrican that the most important question was whether the CCM would be willing to give up power if it lost.
“It is obvious in which direction this election is going,” he said. “The people are tired and want change, but we hope that those in power are willing to listen to the will of the people and step aside for the country to move in a new direction.”
The opposition has sought to regionalise and internationalise the campaign, repeatedly warning top members of the security forces that they could face action at the International Criminal Court like senior Kenyans did after the disputed 2007 election.
“For a long time, Tanzania has tried to play big brother in the region and pointed fingers at others,” said Ismail Jussa, an MP and senior member of the CUF, which is part of the Ukawa coalition, shortly after Mr Lowassa’s rally in Zanzibar.
“Now regional players and others in the international community should follow the election closely and where there are violations they should have the courage to speak up just as Tanzania has always done. Also, it is important for people of high integrity and with the right skills to be ready to intervene in the event that the election is viewed as a sham.”
Ruling party members have dismissed these assertions as a sign that the opposition faces defeat and is unwilling to accept that fact.
Simai Mohammed, who was a member of the Constitution Review Commission and is running for MP of the Tunguu constituency in Zanzibar on a CCM ticket, said the ruling party was headed to victory as its top leadership had changed Tanzanian politics.
“The opposition needs a long term strategy to attract and build trust with rural Tanzania. Nyerereism and CCM domination is still visible and acknowledged among the people when it comes to the ballot.”
The failure of the Constitution review process has been seen as the key driver behind opposition unity.
A focus of opposition complaints has been the fact that a central provision of the draft crafted by the Constitution Review Commission headed by former prime minister Joseph Warioba, the creation of an independent electoral commission, has not been carried out.
But Dr Bana says the opposition’s concerns on this score are overblown.
“There are legitimate accusations that the legal framework that creates the commission is not impartial or even-handed. But the commissioners are people of unimpeachable integrity. Seven commissioners have been High Court judges. Both sides should learn to accept the outcome and take lessons from places like Nigeria.”
With no major opinion polling data released since the main candidates were selected, pundits remain divided over the likely outcome of the election, with the key question being whether Ukawa’s evident strength in urban areas and anecdotally among the youth will shake CCM’s dominance and extensive reach across the country.