‘For the first time we don’t know who will win’: Tanzania ‘Bulldozer’ faces ex-premier in tight election

The suspense is unlike any other in east African country, despite 50-year history of consistent and peaceful voting. It is bruising.

TANZANIANS vote Sunday on a successor to President Jakaya Kikwete, with the ruling party of Africa’s third-biggest gold producer facing its tightest election since independence five decades ago.

John Magufuli, the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi’s candidate, and former Prime Minister Edward Lowassa are the frontrunners in the election, with opinion polls split over who will lead the East African nation as it prepares to begin natural-gas exports. While Lowassa has built momentum with mass rallies and savvy use of social media, Magufuli—nicknamed the Bulldozer because of the zeal he showed in his post of works minister—projects the image of a hard-working man seeking to revitalize the party, which has ruled since 1961 and been dogged by graft allegations.

“For the first time we don’t know who is going to win,” Alex Awiti, director of the East African Institute at Aga Khan University in Nairobi, Kenya, said by phone. Two September polls saw Magufuli, 55, securing more than 60 percent of ballots, while another showed Lowassa winning with just over half the support of Tanzania’s 23.3 million electorate. Six other contenders garnered little backing.

Kikwete is stepping down after his two-term rule comes to a mandatory end. His CCM party has governed since the nation gained independence from Britain 54 years ago and has overseen a period of relative stability.

Tanzania’s $49-billion, mostly agrarian economy, grew more than 7 percent in 2014, according to the International Monetary Fund. It’s looking to diversify into gas production, with an estimated 55 trillion cubic feet of reserves that are the biggest in east Africa after Mozambique. Statoil ASA, based in Stavanger, Norway, and the U.K.’s BG Group Plc may build the nation’s first liquefied natural gas plant at an estimated cost of $15 billion.

‘Were a foregone conclusion’
While mainland Tanzania has a history of peaceful voting, the results of previous votes were always a “foregone conclusion,” Chris McKeon, Africa analyst at Bath, U.K.-based Verisk Maplecroft, said in an e-mailed response to questions.

Ruling party candidate John Magufuli. (Photo/Xinhua)

Now with both sides believing they will win, “levels of frustration among defeated parties are likely to be much higher than in previous years,” McKeon said. “Accusations of vote- rigging or other electoral malpractice could result in violence, especially if such accusations are made by party leaders.”

The main opposition party, Chadema, on Oct. 19 said it was losing confidence in the country’s electoral commission for violating rules and had sent a letter to the United Nations, African Union and Commonwealth on the alleged breaches.

There’s little difference in key policies between Lowassa and Magufuli, though the ruling party candidate has promised to boost the textile and agriculture-processing industries. Both have pledged to create more jobs for the country’s youth, though neither has cited a target. Polling suggests Tanzanians’ concerns are improved access to water, health-care, education and employment, according to Aidan Eyakuze, executive director of Twaweza, which conducts surveys from the country’s commercial capital, Dar es Salaam.

Lowassa (Photo/Lowassa/Facebook)

Kikwete’s rule has been tainted by corruption scandals, most recently claims of irregular payments of as much as $122 million to a private power producer in 2013. Foreign donors including the World Bank and the U.K. consequently withheld as much as $558 million of budget aid.

Some “Tanzanians think Kikwete screwed up so much, and think Lowassa is a welcome wake-up call for the CCM,” Awiti said in an Oct. 21 phone interview.

Lowassa, 62, served as prime minister from 2005 until 2008, when he resigned after being implicated in another corruption scandal. He denied the allegations, describing them as politically motivated. After the CCM rejected his bid for its presidential nomination, he defected to Chadema in July.

The ex-premier may benefit from discontent with the ruling party as well as strong support on social media, which allows political opposition to spread its arguments quickly and challenge the government, according to Ngasuma Kanyeka, a communications analyst in Dar es Salaam. The fall in smartphone prices and free access to Facebook and Twitter offered by some Tanzanian telecommunications companies has also helped the growth of social media, Awiti said.

The ruling party’s choice of Magufuli, previously little- known, may stem from the “desire of CCM’s leadership to recast the party as being in touch with ordinary Tanzanians, in contrast to its current image as a party run by wealthy elites,” McKeon said. “Magufuli’s reputation as a hard worker, and the absence of any corruption accusations against him, will help CCM promote this image.”

—(Bloomberg). With assistance from Joseph Burite in Dar es Salaam.

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