Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – Tanzanians will head to the polls on Sunday to vote in local elections which have been boycotted by the country’s top opposition parties over allegations of cheating.
Although the boycott has complicated matters, observers will be keen to take stock of public sentiment before 2020’s presidential, parliamentary and council elections, in a country where reliable and independent political data is scarce and space for critical media is rapidly shrinking.
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There are 333,555 seats to be contested in Sunday’s vote, the vast majority of which were due to have candidates from across Tanzania’s political spectrum.
On November 7, however, the leading opposition party Chadema said it would not participate over allegations of government interference. Six other parties have since joined the boycott.
In announcing his party’s withdrawal, Chadema chairman Freeman Mbowe said some 94 percent of its candidates were disqualified, while more than 90 percent of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi’s (CCM) candidates were approved.
Many election officers cited minor errors as the cause for rejection, such as mixing “L” and “R” on application forms, despite the fact that these are liberally interchanged in many dialects across the country.
The government has denied foul play, while some question why CCM would want to intervene.
“CCM has readied itself over the last four years and implemented a large portion of its promises to voters, meaning it really would have had no need to exclude opposition candidates,” Said Msonga, a Tanzanian political analyst, said.
However, Dan Paget, a University College London expert on Tanzanian politics, suggested that despite the government’s clear advantage, it could be uncertain of the competition because it had shrunk the civic space. Last month, rights groups accused the government of President John Magufuli of repressing political dissent, including by stifling independent journalism and severely restricting the activities of NGOs.
“The alleged manipulation of the local elections is reason to re-evaluate how popular the opposition is. It smacks of the action of a ruling party apprehensive about the electoral threat posed by the opposition,” Paget said.
“Perhaps CCM fears that the opposition is strong. Perhaps they simply don’t know.”
After the boycott announcement, the government made a series of U-turns that may support this theory.
On November 10, days after the cut-off for appeals, Minister of Regional Administration and Local Government Selemani Jafo invited all rejected candidates to stand in the election, even without their parties – despite independent candidates being officially banned.
The next day, Jafo backtracked, saying that the rejected candidates would need to be vetted by returning election officers – the same officials who rejected application forms en masse in the first place.
Analysts say the government’s flip-flopping indicates hesitation, which supports the view that even CCM might not be sure how seriously to take the opposition.
CCM – and its pre-union predecessor TANU – has ruled Tanzania continuously since independence in 1961.
Although technically just a political party, critics allege that CCM is undeniably enmeshed with the state machinery thanks to protocols left over from decades of one-party rule, which ended in 1992.
For example, all key government positions – from district commissioners to judges – are still directly appointed by the president, and since 2015 Magufuli has been accused of leaning on these protocols to his benefit.
Plucked from the relative obscurity of the Ministry of Works, Magufuli made CCM frontrunner in 2015, thanks to his scrupulous reputation and a zealous work ethic that earned him the nickname “The Bulldozer”.
He has applied this zeal to grand projects such as the Steigler Gorge Dam and in rooting out civil service corruption, as well as clamping down on critics of the party line.
While many Tanzanians agree that his flagship infrastructural projects are desperately overdue, there has been an alarming decline in civic freedoms since he took office.
“The [government’s] regressive policies and actions have stifled the media, sown fear among civil society, and restricted the playing field for political parties in the lead-up to  elections,” Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a report last month.
“With only a year to go, this government needs to reverse these patterns of abuse and demonstrate a genuine commitment to the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly as protected in the constitution and under human rights treaties to which Tanzania is a state party.”
New laws forcing media companies to periodically reapply for operating licences have quashed critical voices in local media, while legislation restricting political activity has frustrated activists and tied up opposition leaders in court cases facing charges such as sedition.
Paget believes this has pushed the opposition back to the grassroots, raising the stakes in Sunday’s election.
“Authoritarian measures have driven Chadema to organise on the ground, the one place they can still operate,” he said.
Yet as Msonga points out, opposition parties could endanger this final refuge by refusing to take part in Sunday’s vote.
“The only thing they will achieve is in sending a message to the public and perhaps to the international community that political competition in Tanzania faces various challenges, especially on the grounds of transparency, freedom and justice,” he said.
“Decision-makers will become far removed from ordinary people and they will likely lose their support, especially in the rural areas.”
Indeed, some party members have announced they intend to defy the boycott, while the defection of Arusha’s Chadema Mayor to CCM earlier this week exposed division among the party’s elite.
Although it is impossible to predict exactly how Sunday’s election will unfold, there seem to be a few distinct possibilities.
CCM candidates have been instructed to proceed as usual, meaning landslide victories are practically guaranteed – in the business capital Dar Es Salaam, only two of 576 voting stations will be open as CCM candidates stand unopposed in all the others.
This means that the government, the opposition and the public at large will walk into the triple elections of 2020 blind as to a realistic measure of parties’ popularity.
Paget argues this will make next year’s contests particularly vulnerable to manipulation.
“If CCM were to win a landslide this weekend, it might make a similar result in 2020 seem more likely.
“This in turn might make it more plausible for CCM to manipulate the 2020 election.”
Legality is another thorny issue. Multi-partyism is enshrined in Tanzania’s constitution, and so a boycott which included all opposition parties could potentially lead to a constitutional crisis.
Sarah Benedict, assistant lecturer at Dodoma’s Local Government Training Institute, believes this would be difficult for the opposition to argue however, as in the government’s view the candidates excluded themselves.
“Non-participation doesn’t affect the process. [Opposition candidates] still qualify for the election and the law recognises them as candidates.”
However, Tanzania’s opposition parties have used boycotts to win concessions in the past.
There is a small chance that CCM may concede, begin the exercise afresh and thus force the opposition to participate.
Failing that, Chadema and its allies will embark on a protracted struggle against a formidable opponent as they gear up for next year’s polls.