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Tanzania votes: Is democracy on the line?

Martina Schwikowski
October 27, 2020

Tanzanians go to the polls on Wednesday to elect a new president. The opposition believes it can win, but analysts doubt elections will be free and fair.

A man walks past a wall with election posters
Image: Eric Boniphace/DW

Tanzania's President John Magufuli was celebrated for his promises to tackle corruption and trim excessive government spending when he first took office in 2015.

He quickly won accolades for ushering in a swath of austerity cuts, such as scrapping lavish state ceremonies and unnecessary foreign travel for officials.

Magufuli also raised people's hopes for democratic reforms in the country, despite being a member of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, which has held power since Tanzania's independence in 1961.

Then Magufuli's administration passed a raft of repressive legislation exerting what rights organizations have called an alarming level of control over the country's politics in the months ahead of the 2020 presidential and general elections.

These are scheduled for Wednesday, where Magufuli hopes to win a second five-year term.

Followers of John Magufuli hold up placards bearing his image
President Magufuli won 58% of the vote in a surprise win in 2015Image: Daniel Hayduk/AFP/Getty Images

No more freedom of the press and opinion

During his first term, Magufuli launched several large-scale infrastructure projects, such as the construction of a new railway line from Dar es Salaam to Morogoro. He also abolished secondary school fees. 

But, says Tanzania expert Daniel El-Noshokaty, that left Tanzania with a mountain of debt.

"He hasn't achieved anything positive," said El-Noshokaty, who is the head of the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) in Dar es Salaam.

Instead of fighting corruption — Magufuli's most important election promise from 2015 — the president has been accused of fighting the opposition. Opposition members have been arrested and mistreated and Tanzania has limited freedom of opinion and the press, said El-Noshokaty. 

Read more: Opinion: Tanzania's media law muzzles free speech

"Tanzania has slipped 53 places on the [Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom] Index in the last four years. No country in the world has fallen by that much," he told DW.

There have even been reports that SMS messages containing the names of opposition presidential candidates, such as Tundu Lissu and Maalim Seif, can't go through when sent.

Hopes pinned on Tundu Lissu

Tundu Lissu, the opposition politician from the Party for Democracy and Progress, known as CHADEMA, is Magufuli's main rival in Wednesday's elections.

The 52-year-old lawyer returned to Tanzania at the end of July from Belgium. A fierce critic of Magufuli, Lissu had been living there in exile after being shot 16 times by unknown gunmen in September 2017.

Tundu Lissu speaks
Opposition leader Tundu Lissu believes victory is possibleImage: Getty Images/AFP

Lissu's election campaign rallies have been well attended. His return has ushered in a new mood of anticipation around the elections, said analyst El-Noshokaty.

"Many young people are talking about politics again and want to vote. Previously, there was a noticeable apathy towards politics in the country," he said.

Elections not 'free and fair'

Lissu is confident of victory.

"Our preparations for the elections on 28 October are very positive," he told DW in an interview earlier this month. "We have sent our observers to every single polling station in the country. Of course, we are facing some obstacles from the government here and there, but so far we are sure to win between 60 and 70%."

But Humphrey Polepole, spokesman for the ruling CCM party, is confident Magufuli will sweep to a "landslide victory."

"We conducted a scientifically optimized election campaign: 89% of our public rallies took place in the early hours of the morning. This allowed more people to listen to our presidential candidate John Magufuli than we had expected," Polepole said at a press conference in Dar es Salaam last week.

Tanzania expert El-Noshokaty doubts Tanzania's opposition will manage to unseat Magufuli.

"There are no free and fair elections in Tanzania. It's only trying to preserve a semblance of democracy," he said.

International observers will largely be absent, as Tanzania hasn't invited the European Union or United Nations to monitor the vote. 

"The president wants an overwhelming victory and he will get it," said El-Noshokaty.

Khelef Mohammed contributed to this article.