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At the edge of democracy: what the general election holds in store for Tanzania

STR/AFP via Getty Images
Tundu Lissu reacts to supporters as he returns home after three years in exile.

Before the heroic return of opposition figure, Tundu Lissu, in late July 2020, Tanzania’s political landscape lacked the exuberance and ebullience that comes with an election season.

Lissu’s return reignited the hopes of a despondent opposition that had been subdued by the oppressive and restrictive political environment during President John Magufuli’s five-year term.

Lissu has been active in politics for the last two decades. He was elected to parliament on a Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (Party for Democracy and Progress) ticket in 2010.

A firebrand lawyer and politician, he is known to hold the government accountable. He has questioned retrogressive laws, mining legislation, government procurement, government corruption, and the demand for a new constitution among others.

Lissu has been a constant critic of Magufuli. In 2017, he survived an attempted assassination while on official parliamentary duty. He has attributed the attempt on his life to the Magufuli administration. While he was abroad for treatment he was stripped of his Parliamentary seat.

Tanzania goes to the polls in late October with the dominant ruling party, the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (Party of the Revolution) and Magufuli, as favourites.

Background to the Elections

The general election will be Tanzania’s fifth since the reintroduction of multiparty politics in the early 1990s.

Since then, the country has been ruled by the dominant Chama Cha Mapinduzi party. There have been significant gains by the opposition parties over the years. Nevertheless, Chama Cha Mapinduzi’s mass mobilisation and internal organisation has seen it strengthen its grip on power. The party has also relied on its incumbency, resource advantages and patronage politics to strengthen itself and weaken the opposition.

In the last general election in 2015, a united opposition coalition made significant gains. It garnered close to 40% of the presidential vote share. Chama Cha Mapinduzi nominated little known candidate John Magufuli ahead of other popular candidates.

Ever since his election the world has tried to understand Magufuli. He has been the subject of immense academic discussion ranging from his personal idiosyncrasies, to style of governance, and approach to national development.

I argue that he needs to be understood at both the domestic and international levels.

At the domestic level he has been praised for his war on corruption, rapid infrastructure developments, fiscal discipline, and concern for the downtrodden.

The president makes frequent visits to various parts of the country. He interacts and engages with the public on their issues. Very often he delivers instant remedies. This is something that has earned him the populist tag.

Internationally, Magufuli is read as an isolationist. He has shunned the global community in an approach driven by his nationalistic and anti-Western rhetoric.

He has been described as a resource and developmental nationalist.

Western governments have criticised Magufuli for Tanzania’s deteriorating human rights and shrinking democratic space.

Chances for the opposition

Opposition parties very often form alliances when competing against a powerful ruling party.

In the 2015 elections, a few opposition parties came together under the agenda for a new constitution. They fronted one candidate to challenge the ruling party at the presidential and parliamentary level.

Under the umbrella, Umoja wa Katiba ya Wananchi (Coalition of Defenders of the People’s Constitution), four opposition parties made significant electoral inroads but still couldn’t challenge Chama Cha Mapinduzi’s dominance. They were Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo, the Civic United Front, National Convention for Construction and Reform – Mageuzi, and the National League for Democracy.

This year, the opposition is less organised and relatively weakened by the Magufuli administration. But Lissu’s nomination as the main opposition presidential candidate has given Tanzania’s democracy renewed impetus. This comes after a torrid five years during which political party rallies were banned. Lissu’s survived assassination embodies the opposition resilience.

During his medical recuperation in Europe, he embarked on an international tour speaking about what had happened to him and castigating the Magufuli administration. These media appearances gave him massive global exposure.

Having nominated and declared their presidential candidates, the two leading opposition parties, Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo and Alliance for Change and Transparency will most likely enter a gentleman’s agreement going into the election. The Alliance’s nominee is former foreign minister Bernard Membe.

During their respective party conventions in August 2020, both reiterated the need for a united opposition to challenge Chama Cha Mapinduzi and Magufuli.


Read more: COVID-19 is casting Magufuli in the worst light, in an election year


Issues for the Elections

Magufuli goes into the election with a good development track record. In July, the World Bank announced that Tanzania’s economy had been upgraded from low to lower—middle income status. This development came five years ahead of earlier projections.

For the Magufuli government, middle-income status means that it can access international credit markets. The president will also bank on his successes in the war on corruption and his efforts to streamline the civil service.

While the economic numbers look good, the opposition has criticised the government’s lack of investment in human resources.

The government’s repressive legislation, and the curtailing of media and individual freedoms has cast the Magufuli administration in the worst possible light. The administration has been accused of human rights abuses including the arbitrary disappearance and jailing of dissidents as well as curtailing civil society space.

The opposition is bound to capitalise on these issues during the campaigns. It has also called for the electoral commission to be reformed, stating that it is not independent but structured in a way that favours the ruling party.

Elections and COVID-19

Tanzania will go into the elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The president, in June declared that the country was COVID-19 free.

The major concern will be reduced external election observation.

Political temperatures will rise as the elections draw closer. And the government will likely crackdown on the opposition. The elections will be a watershed moment for Tanzania as its democracy has been in retreat for the past five years.

A strong opposition performance in the elections, especially at the parliamentary level, will be crucial in building a strong and viable democracy in Tanzania.

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