NAIROBI – Tanzania's presidential election saw “widespread irregularities," the leading opposition candidate alleged Wednesday amid a massive internet slowdown, while some observers said the once-peaceful country likely faces five more years of repressive rule.
Results declared by the electoral commission cannot be challenged in court, bringing urgency to vote-monitoring efforts, but the opposition said observers were turned away from scores of polling stations. Some major independent observers like the European Union were not invited or barred, unlike in previous elections.
“Mass democratic action will be the only option to protect the integrity of the election,” said top opposition candidate Tundu Lissu with the CHADEMA party. The survivor of an assassination attempt in 2017, he returned from exile this year to challenge populist President John Magufuli, who seeks a second term.
The other major opposition party, ACT Wazalendo, which reported deadly violence ahead of the vote, said its polling agents witnessed ballot box-snatching by security agents, ballot box-stuffing and voters turned away by authorities who said ballots had run out.
In the semi-autonomous region of Zanzibar, “a man appeared with a dead man’s ID. The dead man’s son, however, was present in the polling station as an ACT Wazalendo agent,” the party alleged in a statement. “The agent was ejected from the polling station and the man allowed to vote.”
“It's the worst election in Tanzania's history,” an exhausted Ismail Jussa, an ACT Wazalendo official, told The Associated Press. He said police ordered him out when he tried to witness vote-counting, then saw tanks in the streets while driving to party offices.
Considering Magufuli's ban on opposition political gatherings in 2016, the disqualification of some opposition candidates and other harassment ahead of the vote, “I thought (the ruling party) would leave today to go smoothly to give credit for themselves,” Jussa said.
Even before dawn, some claimed intimidation. “My life is in danger,” the CHADEMA party chairman, Freeman Mbowe, tweeted, later sharing surveillance video he said showed an armed local official outside his hotel.
The electoral commission chair, Semistocles Kaijage, in a statement after polls closed said that allegations of irregularities circulating on social media were not true. The commission had not received any formal notification of alleged fraud, he said.
The East African nation has become a human rights crisis as diplomats, the United Nations and others say the government under Magufuli has severely stifled media, civil society and opposition voices. He also is accused of downplaying the coronavirus pandemic, declaring it defeated through prayer.
“We must continue to maintain peace,” the president said after voting. Magufuli, nicknamed “the bulldozer,” has made his name in part by targeting corruption, pursuing large development projects and strengthening one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies.
Whoever receives the most votes wins, with no second round. Results are expected within three days.
The opposition faces a major challenge in trying to unseat the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, in power since independence in 1961, as 15 presidential candidates split support. More than 29 million people registered to vote.
Internet services were at a crawl or inaccessible on Wednesday. Few in foreign media received approval to report on the ground.
One voter in Zanzibar, Yahya Khamis, said it was doubtful the vote would be free or fair. “To our surprise we have been given only four ballot papers while we're required to vote for five candidates,” Khamis said.
Another voter Jokha Mohammed, noted that “we're very much secured today on our safety.” Police and military presence remained heavy a day after ACT Wazalendo accused police of shooting dead nine people in Zanzibar, which police denied.
Tanzania Elections Watch, a regional initiative of prominent personalities, said the election will be flawed if held under current conditions.
In a statement it warned that actions by security forces had created a “climate of fear," and it said it was “alarmed by the clampdown on communication channels, including suspension of bulk SMS services."