A No-Confidence Vote in Tanzania’s Upcoming Elections

Tanzanians will head to the polls on Wednesday in an election that is skewed strongly in favor of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party—the longest-serving party on the African continent. CCM nominee and incumbent president John Magufuli is expected to claim victory amid sustained suppression of the political opposition, leaving little confidence in the credibility of the election.

Magufuli’s key competitor, Tundu Lissu, returned to Tanzania in July after recuperating from a 2017 shooting in Tanzania’s capital Dodoma. Lissu, deputy chairman of the Chadema opposition party, was shot 16 times by unidentified assailants in what is generally accepted to be a politically-motivated attack. Lissu became Magufuli’s main challenger after Chadema and ACT Wazalendo, another prominent opposition party, reportedly formed a loose coalition in mid-October, endorsing common candidates in mainland Tanzania and semi-autonomous Zanzibar. The partnership between Chadema and ACT Wazalendo may be an eleventh hour gambit to overcome continued repression of the political opposition by the ruling party, which has also stifled media and civil society ahead of the October 28 vote.

Q1: How has the ruling party worked to ensure an un-free, unfair election?

A1: In the past few months, CCM has hobbled the opposition, media, and civil society—arresting opposition politicians for holding meetings, suspending media outlets for ‘biased’ political reporting, and barring well-known civil society organizations from participating in voter education and election observation. While some of these tactics have been used under previous governments, Magufuli has intensified his attacks on perceived opponents ahead of the 2020 elections.

  • Bullying rivals. The ruling party has sought to intimidate high-profile opposition politicians through campaign suspensions, arrests, and violence. In early October, the National Electoral Commission (NEC)—firmly under executive control—suspended Lissu’s campaign for seven days, claiming he had made seditious statements during one of his rallies. This came after the June arrest of ACT party leader Zitto Kabwe on charges of sedition and incitement. That same month, unidentified assailants ambushed and broke the leg of Chadema national chairperson Freeman Mbowe. According to reports, the attacker jokingly asked Mbowe if he would be able to carry on campaign activities after the assault.
  • Stifling the opposition. The ruling party has also targeted parliamentary and council nominees by denying their registrations for candidacy. In late August, around the deadline for nomination submissions, Lissu reported that as many as 1,020 Chadema candidates for council positions were disqualified out of a total 3,754. Lissu also tweeted that eight Chadema candidates had been “violently attacked and robbed of their nomination papers by gangs of armed CCM thugs.” This came nearly a year after CCM captured almost all positions in the November 2019 local elections, exploiting the opposition’s boycott.
  • Muzzling the media. The Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) has fined 10 media outlets and temporarily suspended programming of at least six media channels this year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Journalists have also faced harassment and gone missing for long periods of time, like Erick Kabendera who was abducted from his home and questioned about his citizenship. Tanzanian journalist Jenerali Ulimwengu told CPJ this month that “self-censorship has set in” following repeated measures to silence reporters. In a huge blow to press freedom, in August the TCRA ordered that all local media outlets apply for a separate license before partnering with or broadcasting content from foreign media programs. The TCRA also insisted that a government or TCRA representative accompany foreign nationals in any working or business-related engagements with Tanzanian broadcasters. Later in August, the TCRA ordered two privately-owned media stations to briefly freeze programming and issue an apology after both stations aired parliamentary candidate results before verifying the information with the NEC.
  • Suffocating civil society. Since 2019, CCM has enacted four new laws that restrict operations of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), allowing the government to monitor, deregister, and suspend civil society groups. The president’s office has also assumed supervision of numerous NGO functions previously overseen by the Ministry of Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children—signaling the president’s growing personal control over civil society groups. This June, Tanzanian human rights organizations with a history of implementing election-related activities were excluded from an official list of 245 local groups licensed to carry out voter education and election monitoring. Notable organizations excluded from the list include the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC), Tanzania Constitution Forum (TCF), the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC), and the Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC).

Q2: What are implications of another five years under Magufuli?

A2: There are dire consequences for Tanzania and the international community if President Magufuli retains power. His embrace of authoritarianism will result in additional human rights abuses and further erode the country’s democratic norms and institutions. Already, CCM passed a bill in June granting immunity against prosecution to top leaders, and the speaker of the National Assembly stated he would seek to abolish term limits if Magufuli were re-elected. In addition to democratic backsliding, another five years under Magufuli will likely result in deeper social cleavages, an increasingly divided CCM, and further estrangement from international partners.

Magufuli, a populist leader, has characterized support for his economic agenda as synonymous with national pride. In other words, disagreements with his program—which includes nationalizing resources, purchasing five new airplanes for the national airline, and several largescale infrastructure projects—are branded unpatriotic and even treasonous. Social cleavages are not only likely to deepen between supporters and dissenters of CCM, but between supporters and dissenters of Magufuli, underscoring the polarizing nature of his policies and leadership style. CCM party elders are suspicious of Magufuli, pitting them against the younger faction that backs the president and holds key party positions. Magufuli has diminished the role of these elders—a group of 21 former presidents and prime ministers—by putting power in his party chairman to appoint members of CCM’s National Executive Committee and Central Committee. Further sidelining of CCM party elders could lead to an outright split of CCM, reducing internal checks on Magufuli and potentially fueling political violence.

Tanzania’s relationships with its international partners will also take a hit under a second Magufuli term. Increased human rights abuses, particularly attacks on the media, civil society, and the LGBTQ community, will prompt international governments and donors to rethink their ties to Tanzania. Already, in January, the U.S. Department of State sanctioned Dar es Salaam regional commissioner Paul Makonda for violating the rights of LGBTQ individuals, and in late 2018, the World Bank walked back a $300 million loan in response to the government’s policy of expelling pregnant schoolgirls. In addition, Magufuli’s nationalist economic agenda and harsh regulatory framework will make it increasingly difficult for multinational companies to operate in the country.

Q3: What are opportunities for effective regional and international engagement during and after the elections?

A3: Regional and international partners have limited leverage to prevent a tainted election, save for refusing to observe a flawed process. The emphasis, rather, should be on increasing support for local human rights groups in election activities and levying punitive measures in response to election abnormalities. In the post-election environment, the international community should prioritize relationship-building with Tanzania’s democratic, grassroots institutions, especially as CCM grows increasingly fragmented.

  • Smarter election observation. This week, Tanzania will not welcome formal election monitoring committees from the African Union (AU) or European Union (EU). Instead, Magufuli will seek a stamp of approval from small diplomatic missions sent by the United States and other countries, despite impediments to polling station observation, media monitoring, and engagement with the electoral commission. Rather than tacitly endorse this election, these countries should rethink participation to avoid legitimizing the elections and undercutting international election monitoring standards. Immediately after the election, regional bodies such as the East African Community (EAC), Southern African Development Community (SADC), and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) should identify necessary electoral reforms as a precondition for deploying official monitoring delegations.
  • Power to the people. Regional and international partners should reexamine their engagement with the Tanzanian government, taking stock of downward trends in democracy, press freedom, and human rights. International allies should maintain diplomatic relations with the Magufuli administration, but increase engagement with opposition groups, civil society organizations, media outlets, and religious institutions. Supporting democratic growth in Tanzania means investing in its institutions and processes—not just its ruling party. Tanzania’s partners should gird themselves for a long struggle to restore Tanzania’s democracy.
  • U.S. engagement. The U.S. government has called for free and fair elections in Tanzania, including through a September press release by Congresswoman Karen Bass and an October editorial by U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania Donald Wright, in which he warned that “if election officials do not take [steps toward free and fair elections], Tanzania’s democracy will lose credibility in the eyes of the international community.” But the U.S. government could do more by: (1) increasing financial support for Tanzanian NGOs and faith-based groups to engage in approved election activities; (2) pressing the Tanzanian government to provide election monitoring and voter education licenses to key civil society groups excluded from the government’s official list; and (3) leveraging smart diplomatic responses, including targeted sanctions, to punish repressive tactics by CCM—before, during, and after the election.

Tanzania and the United States are facing pivotal elections in the next eight days. Both governments have struggled to address issues such as voter intimidation and inclusion, and have failed to assure their publics they will respect the legitimate election results. Dodoma and Washington should seize this opportunity to address some of these shortcomings, and learn from each other to revive and restore their democracies.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Marielle Harris is a research associate with the CSIS Africa Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Judd Devermont

Marielle Harris