Supporters of the governing Party of the Revolution in Tanzania on Friday. Many Tanzanians say that the party was good in the 1970s and 1980s, and for part of the ’90s, but that it has since lost its way. Credit Tony Karumba/Agence France-Presse — Getty
The governing party, which has reigned for decades, is determined to extend its monopoly on power. The opposition is convinced it has the numbers to take over. The population is growing at an explosive rate, with millions mired in poverty. Some gangs of young men from rival parties have already clashed in an uncharacteristic burst of politically-related violence.
On Sunday, Tanzania, usually one of Africa’s most peaceful nations, a country of stunning game parks and a storied history along its Indian Ocean coast, faces its gravest political test: the most heavily contested and unpredictable presidential election in the nation’s 50-plus years. Most observers, including leading officials, say it is too close to call, which makes people nervous. Many expatriates and others with wealth have jetted off, choosing these weeks as the right time to take an impromptu family vacation.
The backdrop is a continent whose relationship with democracy has become ambivalent, at best. Tunisia held its first democratic presidential vote last year, while in Nigeria something remarkable happened: The president freely admitted defeat in elections and handed over power to a rival from another party, the first such transfer since the return of democratic rule there.
But elsewhere on the continent, more and more leaders seem to be rolling back the democratic spirit. From Burundi to Burkina Faso, several presidents have recently pushed to abolish term limits, with varying degrees of success — and chaos.
This past week, police squads gunned down unarmed demonstrators in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, as they protested their president’s attempt to prolong his seemingly eternal hold on power. Uganda is cracking down on dissidents. The Kenyan national assembly just voted to jail journalists who “defamed” politicians. That bill is still in flux but a recent front-page headline in Nairobi read, “Democracy under attack.”
There has been less Western pressure, too, what some diplomats have unofficially called democracy fatigue. The diplomatic focus in Africa has swung to business, counterterrorism and competition for influence with China — and away from good governance.
This all leaves Tanzanians unsure of what will happen next. Will the governing party, the Party of the Revolution, one of Africa’s best-oiled political machines, try to rig the vote this weekend, as the opposition contends? Will opposition supporters riot in major urban areas if they lose, as the governing party fears?
For elections in relatively new multiparty democracies, the big question is not so much who wins but if the loser accepts defeat.
“I’m scared,” said John Mashaka, an American-educated entrepreneur who recently returned home to Tanzania to start a renewable energy company. “This is a very beautiful country and we just don’t want political goons to push it into flames.”
Tanzanian security forces have already deployed at crucial intersections in the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, with flak jackets, assault rifles and cummerbunds of tear gas canisters. Large trucks packed with troops rumble through town, drawing hard looks from the masses of unemployed youths who line the curbs of many streets, chewing hard, unripe mangoes, desperate for something to do — and something to eat.
But Tanzania has often proved the exception to the rule. Unlike many others in Africa, this nation is not plagued by ethnic divisions that simmer and explode at apparently erratic intervals. Its founding father, Julius K. Nyerere, did a better job than just about anyone on the continent uniting a diverse population under one flag by pushing one language, Swahili, and insisting that children go to high school in different areas as a way to break down ethnic prejudices.
“Unity is Victory” is the governing party’s motto, seen everywhere, on fluttering flags, T-shirts, scarves and baseball caps, the election goodies tossed out by the truckload.
The governing party’s presidential candidate, John Magufuli, is considered relatively clean and a hard worker. As minister of public works, he used to hide in the back of cargo trucks and pop out at weigh stations to bust crooked cops and civil servants.
Slick billboards feature 10-foot-tall pictures of Mr. Magufuli’s goateed face, with the following descriptions: “The hard worker,” “The one who follows up,” “The ethical one.”
But Mr. Magufuli, 55, who was a surprise choice — a chemist and hardly a high-profile figure before this election, faces a powerful challenger: Edward Lowassa, a former prime minister with an extensive political network and deep pockets. Mr. Lowassa, 62, travels this vast country, twice the size of California, by helicopter, swooping in to electrify crowds of thousands who sweat it out under the sun for hours to hear him speak for a couple minutes.
Mr. Lowassa’s health is not good. He was implicated in corruption scandals. He himself was a prominent member of the governing party for years.
But that does not seem to matter to many voters, who view him as their best chance to break from the past.
“We want change,” said Amina Saidi, a vegetable vendor, as she sat on a metal bench, the paint flaking off, in front of a pile of untouched onions. “Mabadiliko” — changes — is the buzzword on Dar’s streets.
She went on: “We want to try out another party to see if it will empower us or if it will behave like the other.”
Many people here say that it is absurd and unhealthy for Tanzania to be ruled by essentially the same political party since independence in the early 1960s (the mainland won independence in 1961, the island of Zanzibar in 1963). Though the Party of the Revolution was founded in 1977, it is widely considered a continuation of the same political party that led Tanzania to self-rule. No other party in Africa has reigned that long, without a single interruption.
Many Tanzanians say the governing party was good in the 1970s and 1980s, maybe even into the ’90s, but has since lost its way. Tanzania remains one of the poorest countries on Earth, yet millions of dollars in public money have vanished in recent corruption scandals. Earlier this year, an influential government minister, when questioned about a suspicious payment, said she spent $5,000 on “vegetables.” Many Tanzanians, who cannot afford fresh vegetables, found that deeply offensive.
The current president, Jakaya Kikwete, is widely considered a disappointment; corruption seemed to bloom under his watch. But at least, critics say, he respected his term limits, agreeing to step down after 10 years, unlike a growing number of his cohorts.
Mr. Mashaka, the renewable energy entrepreneur, said that the election on Sunday would be historic but that it could easily spin out of control.
“Just look at all these youth,” he said, as he cruised behind the wheel of his shiny new black truck, past a crowd of young men slumped on cheap Chinese motorcycles.
“They’re like the wildebeest: They don’t know where they’re going, they don’t know where they’ve been, they just want change,” and then he laughed uneasily.