Voters in Tanzania have cast ballots in elections overshadowed by opposition allegations of “widespread irregularities”, including ballot-box stuffing, amid a massive internet slowdown.
President John Magufuli seeks a second term in office despite criticism by the opposition of stifling dissent and narrowing democratic space since he took office five years ago. Nicknamed by his supporters “The Bulldozer”, the 60-year-old has won plaudits for his efforts to strengthen the economy, reduce wasteful public spending and pursue large-scale development projects.
Some 29 million people had registered to vote in Wednesday’s elections for a president in mainland Tanzania and the semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar, as well as for lawmakers and local councilors.
Results declared by the electoral commission cannot be challenged in court, bringing urgency to vote-monitoring efforts, but the opposition said observers were turned away from scores of polling stations on Wednesday. Many journalists from foreign media, including Al Jazeera, were not able to obtain accreditation to cover the elections while major social media networks were blocked, accessible only through virtual private networks.
Meanwhile, major independent observers such as the European Union were not invited or barred, unlike in previous elections.
In a Twitter post on Wednesday, top opposition candidate Tundu Lissu, of the Chadema party, alleged “widespread irregularities” as voting got under way.
Having survived an assassination attempt in 2017, Lissu returned from exile this year to challenge Magufuli. The 52-year-old has urged supporters to stage protests on the streets if election results are announced on Thursday without ballots being counted properly.
“Mass democratic action will be the only option to protect the integrity of the election,” said Lissu.
Voting reports indicate widespread irregularities in the form of preventing our polling agents from accessing polling stations. Stuffed ballot boxes seized in Kawe, Dar. If this continues, mass democratic action will be the only option to protect the integrity of the election.
— Tundu Antiphas Lissu (@TunduALissu) October 28, 2020
The other major opposition party, ACT Wazalendo, which reported deadly violence ahead of the vote, said its polling agents witnessed ballot box-snatching by security agents, ballot box-stuffing and voters turned away by authorities who said ballots had run out.
Electoral Commission Chairperson Semistocles Kaijage, in a statement after polls closed, said that allegations of irregularities circulating on social media were not true. The commission had not received any formal notification of alleged fraud, he said.
National Election Commission Director Wilson Mahera told reporters that counting had begun.
“We are ready for the job. Tomorrow [Thursday], we will be summing up the presidential results and start updating,” he said. It was not clear when results would be released.
But even before dawn, some claimed intimidation. “My life is in danger,” Chadema Chairman Freeman Mbowe tweeted, later sharing surveillance video he said showed an armed local official outside his hotel.
Hai DC riding a car with @UN ante & armed with guns & machetes led his notorious gangsters to invade Hotel Aishi, Machame intending to kidnap & kill me. On realizing CCTV security, they dashed out with Tourist's Lodge 2 security guards & their gun & dumped them along Arusha Rd. pic.twitter.com/FAZqOq5fwF
— Freeman Mbowe (@freemanmbowetz) October 28, 2020
In Zanzibar, voting was largely peaceful after police and security fired tear gas and live rounds and arrested scores on Monday night and Tuesday. The election took place under heavy security and as polls closed AFP news agency reporters saw two armoured personnel carriers loaded with soldiers driving through the streets of the capital.
“A man appeared with a dead man’s ID. The dead man’s son, however, was present in the polling station as an ACT Wazalendo agent,” the party alleged in a statement. “The agent was ejected from the polling station and the man allowed to vote.”
“It’s the worst election in Tanzania’s history,” an exhausted Ismail Jussa, an ACT Wazalendo official, told The Associated Press news agency. He said police ordered him out when he tried to witness vote-counting, then saw tanks in the streets while driving to party offices.
Considering Magufuli’s ban on opposition political gatherings in 2016, the disqualification of some opposition candidates and other harassment ahead of the vote, “I thought [the ruling party] would leave today to go smoothly to give credit for themselves,” Jussa said.
Opposition leader Seif Sharif Hamad has accused the ruling party of trying to steal every vote in Zanzibar since multi-party democracy was introduced in 1995. Foreign observers have often agreed.
“I feel proud that I have managed to vote this year,” said Hamad after casting his ballot and slamming the election as a “farce” following his detention for several hours Tuesday.
Though Tanzania has long been deemed a haven of stability in East Africa, local and international observers say the country has seen a worrying crackdown on the opposition and freedom of speech under Magufuli.
The president, who is expected to win a second term, is also accused of downplaying the coronavirus pandemic, declaring it defeated through prayer.
“We also need to maintain our peace and I always say there is life after elections,” he said after voting in the administrative capital, Dodoma.
“Everyone has the duty to protect the legitimacy of this general election,” The Citizen newspaper said in an opinion article on Wednesday, reminding readers that “for decades, Tanzania has been an island of peace”.
Al Jazeera’s Catherine Wambua-Soi, reporting from Nairobi, the capital of neighbouring Kenya, said there was a “lot of concern from ordinary Tanzanian people”, who were worried what might happen if the opposition “senses defeat”.
“We have been hearing very aggressive words from the opposition in mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar using very aggressive tones,” Wambua-Soi added.
Tanzania Elections Watch, a regional initiative of prominent personalities, has pointed out hate speech and intimidation of candidates.
“There are legitimate concerns that the heavy police and army deployment across Zanzibar is intimidating residents and creating fear and despondency that could deter voters from turning out,” Tanzania Elections Watch said in a statement on Wednesday.
It warned that actions by security forces have created a “climate of fear”.
Internet services slowed ahead of the vote. Fewer major election observers will be present, some saying they were not invited by the government, and the opposition said authorities made it difficult to accredit thousands of their own observers.