Photo: Michael Furdyke, Creative Commons

A farce leading to less democracy

Zanzibar’s re-run election

The re-run of elections on Zanzibar can be viewed as an attempt to legitimate the ruling party’s power by using “democratic processes” to maintain an undemocratic situation, write Sirkku Hellsten and Masoud Nassor. They argue that semi-autonomous status is to prefer, rather than Zanzibar’s further integration into the mainland politics.

On Sunday 20 March 2016, the re-run elections were held on the semi-autonomous islands of Zanzibar off the Tanzanian coast. The October general election in Tanzania was to choose the presidents and members of parliament of the two parts of the often rather uncomfortable union. According to the terms of the union between Tanzania and Zanzibar, the latter elects its own president, members of the House of Representatives, councillors and also votes for the president of the union and for union parliamentary seats. The mainland got a new president, John Magufuli, and new members of parliament. In Zanzibar, the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), which won on the mainland, faced strong competition from the opposition Civic United Front (CUF), which traditionally enjoys wide support on the islands. However, just three days after the elections and before the final results were in, the polls on Zanzibar were declared null and void. This was a unilateral ruling by the chairman of independent Zanzibar Electoral Commission (ZEC) Jecha Salim Jecha in the middle of vote counting. The reason cited was ‘massive irregularities,’ even though regional and international observers considered the elections ‘free and fair’ (enough). The opposition, which was until then garnering a high number of votes, declared itself the winner and accused the ruling party of election ‘rigging.’ The US and EU criticised the annulment, and requested that vote counting proceed so the final results could be determined. However, the Tanzanian government upheld the ZEC decision. The fact that the ZEC chair is appointed by the president and a member of the ruling CCM added weight to the opposition’s protests.  

After fruitless political dialogue with the opposition in the aftermath of the elections, the government of Tanzania declared that the Zanzibar polls would be re-run. However, the main opposition party, the CUF, which had previously been in the government of national unity (GNU), and eight smaller opposition parties refused to participate in the re-run. Nonetheless, preparations went ahead. Moreover, the ZEC refused to remove the names of opposition candidates from the ballot papers. Given the boycott, relatively few voters cast their votes for the opposition. This made it appear that opposition support was exceptionally low in these elections. In reality, most opposition supporters heeded the call not to vote made by Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad, the CUF’s presidential candidate and a vice president in the former GNU, and other opposition leaders.

Despite fears of violence and protest, the actual election day passed without serious incident. Instead of demonstrating, most opposition supporters, encouraged by their leaders, stayed at home, several polling stations in opposition strongholds reported no voters at all.

However, all was not as calm as it appeared on the surface. In the week leading up to the elections, there were many reports of violence by security forces against opposition supporters, along with many videos and photos that were widely distributed on social media. This violence was especially prevalent on Pemba Island, the opposition’s main hub. There, as on Unguja Island, there was a heavy military presence. Reporters who address the issue of heavy-handedness of the security forces were arrested.  There were, for example, reports claiming that the government may have been supporting militias, so-called ‘Zombies,’ to use violence to intimidate opposition supporters.  The best known reporter addressing these issues is Salma Said, reporting for Deutsche Welle. She was held captive and assaulted until the elections were over. Several opposition leaders were held in custody for several days and later released on bail, but some are still being held for ‘questioning’ after they were accused of insulting the incumbent by accusing him of inciting violence. Even the East African Community’s election observers pointed out that heavy security presence instilled fear among the voters.

The current political situation is both curious and difficult. Certainly it does not reflect well on democratic practice in Tanzania, even though the country is often praised as a model of democratic progress in the region. It is evident that the real popular will has not been reflected in these Zanzibar elections, despite claims to the contrary by ‘the winners’ and the president of the Union.

Many questions remain: Why were the October elections annulled in Zanzibar, even though international observers viewed them as ‘free and fair’? This raises the further question of whether the opposition was so far in the lead that the ruling party panicked? Why hold an election re-run, the results of which could be predicted? Indeed, this re-run has been nothing other than an expensive, futile exercise that bears only a distant resemblance to democracy? Why were opposition candidates left on the ballot papers? Were the votes of those who voted for the opposition bought by the ruling party to lend a veneer of legitimacy to the elections and to demonstrate low support for the opposition? And maybe most importantly, what happens next?

Part of the underlying problem is to be found in the failure to finalise important constitutional reforms, despite promises to do so by the union’s former president, Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete.  Zanzibar’s GNU was set up after protracted peace talks between the CCM and CUF in 2010. In the GNU, the president was chosen from the party that won the election, but the first vice president was from the party that comes second, provided it secures at least 10 per cent of the votes. The results just announced by the ZEC show that CCM will be the sole party in the new government, so there will no longer be a GNU, thus denying much of Zanzibar’s population much needed representation. Fear of losing Zanzibar to the opposition was aggravated after CCM won on the mainland. If the union government was to be formed by two parties with different manifestos and different ideologies, CCM would probably not be able to move ahead with the policies it wanted to take forward for the whole union.

In addition, since last year, there has been increased ethnic friction between people of African and Arabic/Asian descent in Zanzibar due to these political differences. The people of mixed race have been branded machotaras, which signifies unwanted people within CCM structures, deemed to represent the colonisers prior to the 1964 revolution. One slogan paraded by CCM read “Zanzibar is for black Africans, not for machotaras.”   

The re-run of elections is also seen as an attempt to legitimate CCM power over Zanzibar by using ‘democratic processes’ to maintain an undemocratic situation. After the rerun, both the US and EU have called for peaceful negotiations between the parties on the island as a way of guaranteeing democracy.

Quo vadis Zanzibar?

If there really is no possibility of a new GNU, will the ruling party take over all power in Zanzibar? If so, how will the people of Zanzibar react? In this complex and potentially explosive situation, constitutional reform may be the only way forward for both the isles and the mainland. Without it, President Magufuli’s good work on the mainland in cutting public waste and fighting corruption will be overshadowed by Zanzibar’s ungovernability. Thus, his attention may be diverted from economic restructuring to endless and fruitless politicking, which may spill over on to the mainland, and question his commitment to better governance.  This situation will also raise questions about Tanzania’s status as a regional peace mediator.

Thus, Magufuli needs to move ahead with constitutional reforms that will balance the structure of the Union and address the political settlement in Zanzibar. He should also be careful about engaging in politics that appear to integrate Zanzibar further into the mainland politics, but should instead give it semi-autonomous status so that all political players can equitably and democratically participate in nation building and in forming a stronger union. It should not be forgotten that despite its small size, Zanzibar was a totally independent and sovereign state before the 1964 revolution,  and is still not ready to be ‘swallowed’ by the Tanzanian union government.   

By Sirkku Hellsten, the Nordic Africa Institute and Masoud Nassor, the University of Namibia.

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