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Opinion

Opinion: Is Tanzania's peaceful election suddenly unraveling?

After a highly contested election, John Magufuli has been announced as the next president of Tanzania. But there have been claims of fraud. The country could be moving in a dangerous direction says Andrea Schmidt.

At almost the same moment as the electoral commission announced that John Magufuli won the presidency with 58 percent of the vote, his main opposition candidate Edward Lowassa (Ukawa) claimed that he won with 62 percent.

No one could have predicted this. For the first time in the history of Tanzania, there was a neck-and-neck race between two candidates - John Magufuli from the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party and Edward Lowassa, who leads the Ukawa opposition alliance. This was also the first time that opposition parties had joined forces to form an alliance with a realistic chance of unseating the CCM, which has been in power for more than 50 years.

These elections could have served as yet another role model for improved African democratic governance, following in the footsteps of the recent nonviolent transition of power in Nigeria. Initially, Tanzania's elections went off relatively peacefully. But then on Monday, Ukawa accused CCM of fraud and called for a recount, days before the official announcement.

The situation in Tanzania is highly volatile. The opposition is not ready to recognize Magufuli as the winner. Can they keep their supporters calm so that it does not lead to violence? On Wednesday in the Kilimanjaro region in the north of the country - a stronghold of the opposition - government buildings were set on fire. Because of the country's constitution, it is not possible for the opposition to overturn the results of the election. As both sides claim victory, the contestants and their supporters are digging in, and it does not look like either will move from its position.

Annulment on Zanzibar

The situation on the semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar is equally tense. President Ali Mohamed Shein from the CCM is locked in a tight race with his rival Seif Sharif Hamad from the Civic United Front (CUF). The CUF had protested during earlier elections - in 1995, 2000 and 2005 - of massive electoral fraud, claiming it had been robbed of victory at the polls.

In the run-up to Sunday's poll, attempts were made to intimidate opposition supporters and some were even physically attacked. Yet polling day in Zanzibar, too, was relatively peaceful, and the results were supposed to be announced on Wednesday. But after the opposition leader Seif Sharif Hamad declared himself the winner on Monday and insisted that election commission recognize his victory, police and military stepped in and cordoned off the election commission's premises. International observers were stranded inside for several hours.

Tansanian candidate Seif Sharif Hamad

Seif Sharif Hamad declared himself the winner prior to the release of the results. The vote has since been annulled

Hamad's bid to declare himself the winner badly misfired. The counting of the votes then took longer than expected, and the election commission has since accused the opposition of mass voter fraud and Sharif of having declared himself the winner illegally. The election was then annulled, and fresh elections will have to be held within 90 days. The CUF has rejected this and is still insisting that it be recognized as the winner. Apparently there were altercations within the election commission itself because some of its members were pursuing party interests rather than maintaining the strict neutrality that was demanded of them.

Questions remain

And even if there are fresh elections on Zanzibar within 90 days, how will the election commission regain the credibility it has lost? And how will it guarantee that there is no electoral fraud in a fresh round of voting?

Election observers announced on Tuesday that the vote was both free and fair. But there was some criticism of the lack of transparency and further concern about the unbalanced coverage of the election by state-owned media. This brings up the question as to whether the observers really saw what was happening. How can it be that the opposition both in mainland Tanzania and on Zanzibar are now calling for recounts?

In such a tense situation, it is a top priority that Tanzania remains calm and peaceful. The international community must ensure that the situation doesn't escalate by bringing pressure to bear on all parties involved. Transparency is crucial. Tanzania, which has been a force for stability and peace for decades, cannot be allowed to descend into chaos. That would mean dire consequences, not only for the country and its people, but also lead to further destabilization in a region already troubled by crises in Burundi and the Democratic Republic Congo.

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