Tanzania’s main opposition presidential candidate on Thursday declared he would not recognise the election result as key seats fell to the governing party in a vote he said was marred by irregularities.
Counting was taking place across Tanzania and its semi-autonomous archipelago Zanzibar – which also elects its own president and legislators – where early results showed the opposition losing seats in some traditional strongholds.
President John Magufuli, who is seeking a second term, has the lead in more than a dozen constituency results announced by the Tanzania election commission.
His Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party has been in power since independence in 1961, but rights groups have decried a slide into “autocracy” over the past five years marked by the repression of the opposition.
Magufuli’s main challenger, the Chadema party candidate Tundu Lissu, declared the results trickling through “illegitimate” and urged his supporters to demonstrate peacefully while asking the international community not to recognise the outcome.
“Whatever happened yesterday was not an election, and thus we do not recognise it. We do not accept the result,” Lissu told reporters in Dar es Salaam, saying opposition election monitors had been barred from entering polling stations and faced other interference.
“What is being presented to the world is a complete fraud. It is not an election.”
The process was like “spitting in the face of democracy”, said Lissu, appearing to warn of unrest.
“Those in power are telling Tanzanians, ‘If you want change, look for it another way, not through the ballot box,’” he told reporters. “The message they are sending is, ‘Use force if you can… We won’t let you win through democracy.'”
He added, however, unlike the government, “we do not have the instruments of violence”.
Many across Africa have watched in dismay at what they have described as Tanzania’s abandonment of its long reputation of democratic ideals under the populist Magufuli.
The results of presidential elections cannot be contested in Tanzania, though the parliamentary outcome can be challenged.
Lissu, 52, returned to Tanzania in July after three years abroad recovering from 16 bullet wounds sustained in what he believes was a politically motivated assassination attempt.
His return reinvigorated an opposition demoralised by years of attacks, arrests and a ban on political rallies, with massive crowds seen throughout his campaign.
However, several opposition members of Parliament lost seats in long-held bastions, such as Chadema chairman and legislator Freeman Mbowe of Hai in the Kilimanjaro region.
In volatile Zanzibar, opposition presidential candidate Seif Sharif Hamad was arrested along with top leaders of the ACT-Wazalendo party, after he called for protests against election results there.
The opposition said 10 people were killed in the run-up to the vote, and Hamad decried the election as a “military exercise” overshadowed by violence and cheating.
“All the polling stations were surrounded by the military and armed forces,” said Hamad, who has accused the governing party of trying to steal every vote since multi-party democracy was introduced in 1995, and foreign observers have often agreed.
“People who came in to vote, some of them were given three, four ballot papers. When our party agents tried to ask why, they were thrown out,” he said.
“If we don’t get our rights through the ballot boxes then we have no choice but to demand this right through the streets.”
As Hamad and party leaders left to the protest they called, police fired tear gas at the group before bundling them into their truck.
“Presidential candidate Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad has been arrested while going to lead peaceful demonstrations against election results,” party official Salum Abdalla Bimani told the AFP news agency.
Truckloads of police and soldiers who had been patrolling during the election fanned out across the capital Stone Town, causing streets to empty out.
The feared “zombie” private militia of the ruling party swarmed the city, clad in black and with bandannas covering their faces.
Police did not immediately comment but confirmed at least 70 arrests in the past two days in election-related incidents. Streets into Zanzibar’s main city, Stone Town, were blocked.
“Tanzania in full blown one party dictatorship. We shall resist this,” ACT Wazalendo chair Zitto Kabwe tweeted, later alleging one of the arrested party members was badly beaten. “I ask the international community NOT to recognize this Tanzanian election.”
The East African nation’s electoral commission has denied allegations of voting irregularities in one of Africa’s most populous countries and fastest-growing economies. Election results could be announced on Friday.
The commission released results for 18 out of 264 constituencies showing Magufuli with the early lead.
The opposition and commentators had already voiced concern about the fairness of the election well ahead of polling.
“This year it was very different. There was lots of intimidation, violence, kidnapping. Two of our polling agents were kidnapped and very badly beaten,” said Tanzanian political analyst Aikande Kwayu, who supports the opposition and was on the ground in Hai.
“We knew it wouldn’t be free and fair, but nobody expected this,” she said.”I think we have moved from being a democracy to full authoritarianism. There will be no critical voice left. It is going to be a very difficult next five years.”
Tanzania’s electoral commission said on Wednesday it had not received any complaints about incidents of ballot stuffing.
Tanzania’s election, for which about 29 million people were registered to vote on the mainland and 560,000 in Zanzibar, took place largely without external monitors.
Most international media were unable to gain accreditation to cover voting on the mainland, and major social media networks were blocked, accessible only through virtual private networks (VPN).
Tanzania Elections Watch, a regional group of eminent people, expressed concerns about the credibility and conduct of the election, noting deadly violence on the eve of the vote in Zanzibar, massive disruption in internet and text messaging services, and the reported arrests of candidates on election day.
“Unfortunately, in Tanzania the announcement made by the National Electoral Commission is final,” the group’s co-chair Frederick Ssempebwa told a briefing, as results cannot be challenged in court. “There is no avenue for the aggrieved parties to air their views.”
The declaration of results could trigger a wave of instability, Ssempebwa added.