Tanzania gears up for its closest ever elections

October’s elections will see a united opposition, led by a high-profile defector from the ruling party, come up against a strong incumbent party, led by a candidate nobody expected.

CCM's presidential candidate, John Magufuli was an unexpected and accidental choice. Photograph by Rob Beechey/World Bank.

CCM’s John Magufuli was an unexpected and arguably accidental choice to be the ruling party’s presidential candidate. Photograph by Rob Beechey/World Bank.

Tanzania’s 25 October presidential and parliamentary elections will be hotly contested and may turn out to be the closest elections in the country’s history. As the campaigns get underway, the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party still has a clear edge, but that could easily erode over the next five weeks. The CCM has made several political missteps and the opposition parties are more united than in the past.

The defection of former CCM prime minister and political heavyweight Edward Lowassa to the opposition has generated fissures inside the ruling party and given an added boost to a more unified opposition. While the CCM clearly has some strong electoral advantages, there are growing indications that its long-term grip on power is continuing to dissipate.

A tight election or the perception of a rigged outcome could increase the chance of post-election violence in what has been one of Africa’s leading democracies and most peaceful countries.

A defector vs. an accidental candidate
CCM has monopolised political power since the country’s return to multiparty democracy in 1992. It has won every single presidential election and has held significant parliamentary majorities in the mainland legislature. CCM (and its precursor TANU) flourished under the charismatic leadership of Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, and with his stewardship and organisational skills, the party established a broad network of branches across the nation – many of which continue to exist.

However, after 23 years in power, CCM’s appeal is starting to fade, and the party may be in for a bruising battle to retain national power. The CCM is in trouble for a variety of reasons – some of its own making.

To begin with, President Jakaya Kikwete and the ruling party barons mismanaged CCM’s 2015 presidential candidate selection process. Kikwete reportedly favoured Foreign Minister Bernard Membe to succeed him. However, to secure Membe’s nomination, Kikwete had to derail the nomination of former prime minister Edward Lowassa. Lowassa, an ambitious and determined CCM stalwart, had amassed significant support in the Central Committee and the National Executive Committee – the two bodies responsible for selecting the presidential candidate.

To keep Lowassa off the ticket, Kikwete’s allies reportedly manipulated the work of CCM’s Ethics and Security Committee, which is responsible for reviewing, vetting and forwarding all candidates to the National Executive Committee. Instead of passing on the names of all 38 potential candidates, the Ethics Committee is understood to have held a highly irregular session and agreed to forward only five names, deleting Lowassa and putting together a shortlist that would favour Membe.

However, when his name was left off the final list, Lowassa turned his full attention to preventing Membe from securing the nomination. Members of the National Executive were allowed to cast three votes for their top selections, and those who had previously favoured Lowassa voted against the Foreign Minister. By leaving him off their tally sheets, Lowassa’s supporters managed to knock Membe out of the race.

This move left the door open for John Pombe Magufuli, the Minister of Works and Roads, to secure the nomination. Magufuli has a reputation for being serious, honest and hardworking, and also for being one of the government’s best ministers, but he is not regarded as a party insider or heavyweight. Magufuli’s elevation to be the CCM’s candidate was a political accident – an accident that could hurt the CCM’s chances of retaining its large majority in parliament or retaining the presidency.

A united opposition
Angered by Magufuli’s selection to be the CCM presidential candidate, Lowassa defected to the opposition Chadema Party, where he was almost immediately anointed as their presidential candidate.

Lowassa is an experienced, well-known and determined politician with a large following across northern Tanzania and in the CCM’s youth wing. Lowassa’s presence at the top of the opposition ticket will probably strengthen the opposition’s chances of winning more parliamentary seats and perhaps even capturing the presidency.

Furthermore, Lowassa’s departure has already triggered a number of other defections among long-time CCM party officials. Senior CCM regional leaders in the northern part of the country have reportedly turned in their party cards and crossed over to the opposition. Although it is hard to evaluate how many people will leave CCM or change their votes, it is noteworthy that Lowassa’s campaign rallies around the country have drawn huge crowds, including in CCM strongholds where opposition appeal has typically been weak.

However, Lowassa’s defection is not the only problem CCM is facing. The ruling party is also losing its appeal among Tanzania’s increasingly youthful voters. Under former President Nyerere, CCM (and its predecessor TANU) was extraordinarily popular. The party was seen as dynamic, visionary and a source of hope for a better future. But that view has changed along with Tanzania’s rapidly changing demographics.

Most Tanzanians were born after the country’s independence and an increasing number after Nyerere’s death. Many Tanzanians of voting age only know Nyerere as a fading political symbol and the CCM as a party that has been in power for decades without delivering the political goods it has long promised. Young, urban, and more educated Tanzanians, especially college graduates, have grown tired of CCM’s leadership and the government’s inability to deliver the kind of economic progress and jobs they crave. Wracked by a succession of high-profile financial scandals, the CCM is also viewed by many of these same groups as corrupt and politically self-serving.

The unification of Tanzania’s four main opposition parties – Chadema, the NCCR-Mageuzi Party, the CUF, and the National League for Democracy (NLD) – has enhanced their chances of gaining substantially more parliamentary seats and of perhaps catapulting Lowassa into the presidency.

The opposition made steady gains during the last two national elections. In 2005, opposition parties led by Zanzibar-based CUF won only 26 of the 228 parliamentary seats. But in the 2010 elections, the opposition won 50 seats, with Chadema and CUF picking up 24 apiece.

The opposition has also been boosted by its decision to run only one candidate in each constituency against CCM, and recent polling suggests the ruling party is facing a tougher election than ever. Results indicate that Tanzanians do not believe their political leaders have delivered on their previous campaign promises and that disapproval of sitting politicians is growing. Nearly half of all those who were surveyed in one poll said they would not vote for their current member of parliament. This increased dissatisfaction with the country’s elected leaders could reduce CCM’s electoral margins in 2015.

Don’t count out CCM
Despite these challenges, CCM could still win a clear victory. Although many think the race will be tight, the ruling party could feasibly repeat its performance in 2010, when President Kikwete won 61% of the vote and CCM won 187 seats.

CCM is the country’s oldest, largest and still best organised and resourced party. It has been built up over nearly five decades based on patronage and privilege, and it remains strong in rural areas among subsistence farmers and older Tanzanians.

The ruling party also has a number of other factors going for it. The power of incumbency and control over the presidency will weigh heavily in CCM’s favour. Although John Magufuli was not the party’s strongest candidate, Kikwete’s government will leave no stone unturned to ensure he wins, knowing Magufuli’s defeat would bring an abrupt end to CCM’s long control over ministerial and government privileges and perks.

CCM is also hoping that Lowassa’s decision to join Chadema (and its umbrella coalition UKAWA) will cause fissures in his new party. Chadema was known for its strong anti-corruption platform, and some members of the party question the decision to select Lowassa as its candidate given past charges of corruption against him. Willibrod Salaa, the former priest turned politician who had been the most public face of the party, has already pulled out of Chadema over its decision to back the former CCM stalwart. Some observers believe Salaa’s decision will cause disruptions inside Chadema. However, most tend to believe Lowassa will bring far more people into Chadema than Salaa will pull out.

A close contest
It is too soon to say who will win the October elections, but CCM has lost seats to the opposition in each of the last two national elections and it will probably lose more parliamentary seats this time around.

If the race is really close, and there is any hint of election irregularities, there could be sporadic outbreaks of post-election violence. Three of the major parties have small organised militias that could be mobilised to stir up trouble. Some observers have already expressed concern about a scenario in which the CCM candidate wins the presidential election but the opposition wins more parliamentary seats. They also express concern about the centralised manner in which presidential votes are counted and the possibility of altering the final tally. Questions have also been raised about President Kikwete’s recent decision to replace the very experienced Director of Elections with a novice election chief, who might be more easily manipulated.

Tanzania has been one of Africa’s most peaceful countries since its independence and has been regarded over the past two decades as one of the continent’s strongest democracies. A close and hotly contested election might challenge both of those assumptions.

Johnnie Carson served as US ambassador to several African countries and is the former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. He is a senior advisor at United States Institute of Peace.

[Correction: the article originally mistakenly listed the TLP as one of the parties in Ukawa instead of the NLD. This has been corrected. Many thanks to the tweeter who pointed it out.]

For more on Tanzania’s elections, read:

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7 thoughts on “Tanzania gears up for its closest ever elections

  1. Well argued observation but suggesting that post stiff election would engulf Tanzania to war is an realistic as it Tanzania is not the only African country where stiff elections are held. Kenya and Nigeria last elections are examples and no civil war that followed. Such position may perpetuate what was not ideally an interest of the populace and hence largely water downs your analysis

  2. Mr. Ambassador,
    I find your article shockingly bias, I say shockingly because you have been around Tanzania politics and surprisingly you have left key facts on your article.

    1: Lowassa’s known record of being corrupt

    2: Downplaying the loose opposition coalition after resignation of Dr. SLaa and Prof Lipumba who were heavyweights in Tanzania’s opposition since 1995.

    3: The fact that Lowassa had to defect after loosing, and opposition is filled with CCM rejects.

    4:Manipulation and breaking of opposition constitution to allow Lowassa nomination.
    5: Allegation that Lowassa bought off nomination to secure nomination without any political contention.

    6: Lowassa health. You know and I know and Tanzanians know that the man is suffering from Parkinson’s disease and he is wheeled by Helicopter in campaign rallies and has never delivered a speech longer than 10 minutes.

    7: Lowassa has been warned by Election Commission after a video tape was released asking votes from his Lutheran congregation. He is divisive.

    8: Magufuli was NEVER an accidental candidate. Please, talk to your sources in Tanzania. And you know his track record.

    Thanks for reading Mr. Ambassador.

  3. Mr. Ambassador,

    Thanks for the great article since I’ve learnt a lot concerning Tanzania general election which I never knew. To my surprise they’ve “woken up from their sleeping beds”. From the article, the youths have been mentioned widely and or they’re moving forward in the upcoming elections which is amazing!! what of the women? Can you say something about them? Concerning the militia… I’m not for the idea, coz this is what brought about PEV in Kenya, Kindly, follow up on this and let the world know of the next positive action to be undertaken.


  4. I find the Ambassador’s article a fair assessment of the situation on the ground. In fact, it is Haroub Othman’s comments which are biased against the opposition candidate. Almost all issues he raised are the same being propagated by ruling party’s campaign team. Keep updating your assessment as the election date gets closer, Mr Ambassador.

  5. I think in summary, you pinpoint everything as clear as it happened and continue to happen. Someone mentioned a lot of issues and he strongly accused you, Mr Ambassador, for being biased while in reality he is the one who is clearly biasing issues (take a look on his comments). On issue of violence, I think every Tanzanian is aware of that and argue my fellow countrymen to make sure we maintain our peace no matter what challenges are ahead of us pre and post election. I still believe the battle is tight and anything can happen…. everyone has to prepare psychological for the outcome…

  6. Lowassa does have a well documented record of corruption, (see http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/New-political-alliances-threaten-Tanzania-s-CCM-/-/2558/2842258/-/item/1/-/svr6ylz/-/index.html) and the RichmondGate scandal is fascinating, has huge implications for mechanisms of corruption, foreign investment, and was never resolved, legally.
    He is also ill, and Carson’s comments about CCM’s clientilism, favours and patronage are correct.
    CCM has effectively been in power since its formation in 1977, and some of the ‘old guard’ in CCM have been at the centre of power since then too.

    One thing this article doesn’t really explore is how none of the parties are necessarily speaking to the concerns of people- there is a great deal of alienation and disatisfaction with the WHOLE process, and disappointment/lack of trust with all the politicians, who represent a growing elite clique highly removed from ‘ordinary people’.

    The GINI index (disparity of incomes between rich and poor) is increasing in Tanzania, tax payments are still a major problem, as is ‘disappeared’ donor revenue: these are what discoved whilst I was living there- doing my PhD (investigating political involvement and manifestations) and working as a journalist in Zanzibar and Tanzania for 6.5 years.

  7. I believe, Lowassa is not the best alternative for the people of Tanzania in terms of track record and health condition. It’s democracy and the choice of the majority wins, but I believe Magufuli would make a better president going by his track record of honesty and humility.

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