The game-changing election for Africa

The election in Mozambique exposed the divide between rich and poor thanks to a more connected society.

Ruling party Frelimo may well find itself having to eat humble pie, writes Kajee [AFP]

When the results from yesterday’s elections in Mozambique are tallied, ruling party Frelimo may well find itself having to eat humble pie. Despite its confident assertions of retaining its dominance, the former liberation-movement-turned-ruling-party faces significant erosion of its parliamentary representation for the first time in over 20 years, with both the opposition Renamo party and relative newcomer Democratic Movement of Mozambique (MDM) poised to make significant inroads.

The shock will be heightened if Frelimo’s presidential candidate fails to win more than 50 percent of the vote and is forced into a run-off poll, as some pundits are predicting.

The Mozambique experience is an object lesson for the region, since Frelimo’s dilemma is by no means unique. Earlier this year its South African counterpart, the African National Congress (ANC) suffered a similar upset, reeling from gains made by both the official opposition and new-kids-on-the-block the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

That both countries have moved from a one-horse race to a three-horse one not only attests to a maturing of democracy, but should serve as a wake-up call for incumbent parties who believe they can trade on their liberation credentials and rule “until Jesus comes back“, to borrow a phrase from South African president Jacob Zuma.

Mozambique polls highlight inequality

Unless they are prepared to engage in vote rigging, intimidation and other openly undemocratic measures to retain power, as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF have allegedly done, the ANC, Frelimo and others of their ilk should be worried indeed.

Even relatively stable, sparsely-populated Namibia has recently been rocked by the police shooting of a young protester, and majoritarian incumbent SWAPO may face hitherto unprecedented challenges in upcoming elections, with the Namibia Economic Freedom Fighters (NEFF) injecting fresh blood into Namibia’s political arena.

Neighbouring Angola has witnessed a wave of youth-led protests since 2011, which have been brutally repressed by the authoritarian MPLA government. Both Namibia and Angola are resource rich countries with high growth rates that mask deepening inequality and widespread joblessness.

Mozambique may be emulating this resource curse. The Frelimo government has come under fire for its failure to address deep class divisions and allegations of rampant corruption and lack of transparency. Despite a healthy economic growth rate of between 6 and 8 percent over the past decade, about 9 in 10 Mozambicans still live on less than two dollars a day, according to a recent Standard Bank survey. In a nation poised on the cusp of an economic boom fuelled by its largely untapped gas and coal reserves, these citizens are demanding a slice of the economic pie and are increasingly likely to express this through the ballot box.

In an age of crass consumerism hunger is perhaps the starkest driver of socio-political protest, as underlined by the 2010 food riots in Maputo, Mozambique’s capital city, and the bread riots that were a trigger in the Arab Spring. An OXFAM report released this week estimates that 13 million South Africans go to bed hungry. That’s almost a quarter of the population, but is the ANC government taking note or is it too busy spinning the political fallout over the upgrades to Zuma’s home, which are estimated to have cost the South African taxpayer over $22 million?

In Angola, drought in recent years has exacted a high toll in hunger and malnutrition related deaths, and last month’s fuel price increase is likely to have a knock-on impact on food prices and food security. This is a supreme irony for Africa’s second-largest oil producer, where the president’s daughter is also Africa’s first female billionaire.

Kleptocracy among political elites and the stark divides between the richest and poorest in society are becoming increasingly well-publicised. The rise of citizen journalism, enabled by widespread penetration of cellphone technology and access to social media platforms, is making it ever more difficult to rig elections and stifle protest while retaining a semblance of democracy. This has been underlined by the success of initiatives like the Centre for Public Integrity (CIP) in Maputo, which has successfully used citizen journalism to expose abuse of incumbency and to substantiate the case for a new poll in a contested vote count during last year’s local government elections.

While Angola’s MPLA appears ready to sacrifice constitutional rights in its quest to retain power, its liberation brethren in neighbouring countries are hopefully, less willing to sacrifice hard-won democratic gains for political expediency.

If that is indeed the case, Swapo, Frelimo and the ANC had better heed this wake-up call to become more citizen-focussed and less venal. If they choose to ignore these seedlings of dissent, they may reap a bitter harvest as once-loyal electorates become disenchanted enough to decamp in search of new political homes.

Ayesha Kajee is a human rights activist and political analyst with a special focus on African governance and development. She tracks elections and democratic consolidation in the region.