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October 27, 2020


TANZANIA: A referendum on Magufuli’s populist path

BY Anne Frühauf

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  • It is widely considered a foregone conclusion that President John Magufuli will be reelected in general elections on 28 October, as the race seems overwhelmingly skewed in favor of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM).
  • Yet a loose coalition between the main opposition parties, Chadema and ACT-Wazalendo, around presidential aspirant Tundu Lissu has invigorated the campaign and raised public expectations.
  • This increases the potential for an electoral dispute, particularly on Zanzibar


The prospects for a free and fair election have rarely been in greater doubt since the official end of Tanzania’s one-party system three decades ago. Already in the run-up to the polls, opposition parties have complained of threats and repression, with the election commission disqualifying numerous opposition candidates for parliament and Lissu’s campaign being briefly suspended. A broader concern is that the freedoms of civil rights groups and the press have been systematically eroded as a result of draconian legislative and regulatory changes during Magufuli’s first term.

While the political context strongly favors the incumbent, the stakes are high not only for the opposition but also for the ruling party. Magufuli and CCM are under pressure to improve on their 2015 electoral margin. In the last election, Magufuli – a compromise candidate within CCM – won the presidential ballot with 58.5% of votes cast, while CCM won 55% of parliamentary votes. This was an unprecedentedly poor result for the deeply entrenched ruling elite. With his big promises around infrastructure development, cleaning up entrenched corruption, and tough interventions against foreign investors, Magufuli has skillfully used the CCM’s seemingly waning popularity to centralize control within the party. The 2020 ballot will therefore be a referendum on his populist leadership style.

Potential for an electoral dispute

That the credibility of the elections will be dented already seems certain, but the risk is that this could set the scene for a disputed election. Earlier in October, Lissu said that the opposition would not “accept stolen elections” and would call “millions of our people onto the streets who will take mass democratic and peaceful action to defend the integrity of the election.” While it is impossible to know how strong a following Lissu has given the absence of opinion polling, the return to Tanzania in July of the man who miraculously survived a 2017 assassination attempt does appear to have drawn sizable public gatherings across various regions. Moreover, in 2015, Chadema, won a sizable 6mn votes, compared with Magufuli’s 8.8mn.

If an electoral dispute emerges, it is particularly likely to occur on Zanzibar. The semi-autonomous archipelago has always been controlled by CCM, but has been stiffly contested by the Civic United Front (CUF) in the past. This year, the CCM’s Ali Mohamed Shein is stepping down as president after two terms, but the ruling party’s new candidate, Hussein Ali Hassan Mwinyi (the son of former Tanzanian president Ali Hassan Mwinyi), will face off against Seif Sharif Hamad, who is attempting to take office for the sixth time, this time on the platform of ACT-Wazalendo. Chadema has endorsed Hamad on Zanzibar, in return for ACT-Wazalendo’s support for Lissu at the national level.

Zanzibar has a long history of electoral violence. Voters will not have forgotten that the 2015 ballot on Zanzibar was effectively canceled after the CUF appeared to be winning. At the time, the CUF opted for negotiations instead of mobilizing protesters, but ended up empty handed. At this year’s rallies, crowds have reportedly been chanting: “We are no longer scared. Better Corona than CCM.” Violence has already been reported: on 26 October, Hamad stated that three people had been killed and nine injured when police fired live ammunition in Pemba. Even if electoral violence may ultimately be managed (likely via heavy-handed military interventions), a longer-term source of tensions could be that ACT-Wazalendo seeks a new constitution under which the archipelago would obtain “full autonomy”.

Second term agenda

If Magufuli increases his margin of victory this year, he will likely feel emboldened to continue his aggressive populist and increasingly authoritarian agenda during his second term. This will include his fight against corruption, his infrastructure drive and turning the screws on the private sector as he pursues his “Ujamaa 2.0” agenda.

Another crucial development would be if he tries to amend the constitution to extend presidential term limits. This would be ironic given that his own party initially nominated him as a compromise candidate, but it would show how effectively he has seized control of the party since then. It will therefore be important how solid a parliamentary majority the 2020 ballot delivers for CCM. Crossing the term limits bridge could also be what ignites internal competition against Magufuli within CCM ahead of the 2025 ballot, heralding a contested nomination process and efforts by moderates to take back control of the party.

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