On Wednesday, Tanzanians go to the polls to decide who will be their president for the next five years. It is the sixth election since the country went multi-party a quarter of a century ago.
In a continent of often contested elections outcome, Tanzania has always stood out since its transition into a multiparty democracy in the 1990s. While the ruling Chama cha Mapidunzi (CCM) party maintained a tenacious hold onto power, there was certain decency about the competition.
Save for the odd case of the internal process in Zanzibar, and complaints by the opposition about an unequal contest, at the Union level, elections have avoided the kind of polarising spillover common in Africa.
That is a legacy to be proud of and worthy of preserving. In a number of respects, this year’s election is a portrait of how much the country has changed. With 14 contenders challenging President John Pombe Magufuli, it can also be safely said that this is perhaps the most contested election in Tanzania’s history.
Yet despite the 15-horse race, the real competition is between Tundu Lissu, President Magufuli’s main challenger, who this year returned from medical treatment abroad to join the race.
Coming against a backdrop of a four-year freeze on political activities to the constituency level, expectations both within and outside Tanzania are high. What is at stake in not necessarily who carries the day but the character of the process itself.
Mr Lissu and other opposition candidates have had to cope with a radically changed landscape with many curbs on what they can and cannot say or do. At some point during the campaigns, Mr Lissu had to contend with a suspension running for several days.
With his track record against corruption and fighting the lethargy in the government bureaucracy and getting the state to work again, President Magufuli is expected to carry the day. Yet some of the actions of his government not only undermine this narrative but threaten to be the proverbial fly in the ointment.
In a tumultuous Great Lakes region, Tanzania is held in high esteem for its stability and its role in guaranteeing stability. Its intervention in the DRC in 2013, reset the equation, bringing a modicum of stability to the east of that country. Albeit under the same umbrella, the peaceful political transition, now in its fifth fold, has been nothing but exemplary.
That is why certain aspects of this year’s polls are cause for concern. Though isolated, incidents of violence targeting Magufuli’s challengers are cause for concern. In August, there was an attack against the offices of Mr Lissu’s Chadema party in Arusha.
President Magufuli’s government also faces criticism over alleged threats and repression against the opposition. And now, the government has reportedly locked out foreign election observers.
Such a decision could possibly be an expression of independence but external observers could have been useful under the present circumstances.
Whatever the case, Tanzania’s future and heritage are solely in the hands of the incumbent government.
President Magufuli owes Tanzanians and the region in general, an election that does not betray the legacy of peaceful contestation for power.