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Death Pangs of Democracy in Zanzibar

Last week, the two month campaigning period for Tanzania’s elections commenced, including for semi-autonomous Zanzibar. On October 25th, Zanzibaris will return to the polls to elect a president for the sixth time – seventh, if you count the 2016 re-run. Zanzibar is an archipelago that joined with the Republic of Tanganyika shortly after a bloody revolution in 1964, forming the United Republic of Tanzania. As such, Zanzibar has its own president and parliament to address issues not specifically mandated to the overarching union government. Even with the advent of multiparty elections in 1995, a single party has continued to govern Zanzibar since 1964. Unfortunately, each election has been accompanied by doubts or scandal, leading to political violence.

There are three new factors currently at play within the East African archipelago that could harm the 2020 election. Voter disenfranchisement, a shift toward authoritarianism by the mainland Tanzanian government, and partisan influences in Tanzania’s courts and the Zanzibar Electoral Commission (ZEC) are likely to result in the least democratic election in Zanzibar’s history. It is not an exaggeration to say that we could be witnessing the death throes of democracy in a region that was once thought to be an anchor of democratic growth in East Africa.

First, the Zanzibari government has enacted new voter ID laws to disenfranchise political opponents. The perennial opposition candidate, Seif Hamad, recently wrote an op-ed arguing that the upcoming elections will be neither free nor fair. He points out that the voter roll has been cut by more than ten percent at a time when the number of eligible voters has increased by twenty percent. Critically, most of those removed from the voter roll are from the opposition stronghold of Pemba. This action ensures that the election will not be representative of the population.

Second, a key difference between this year’s election and previously contested elections is the lack of a moderating influence from the mainland. After contested elections in 1995 and again in 2000, Zanzibar’s disputing parties were pressured into a muafaka, or reconciliation dialogue. Though these proved ineffective at the time, they were a precursor to deliberations and maridhiano, or handshake agreements, between the two presidential candidates in advance of the 2010 election and the formation of a unity government. Admittedly imperfect, but 2010 was the most peaceful election in Zanzibari history. Since the 2015 election of Tanzanian President John Magufuli in 2015, however, he has vacated the role of arbiter, instead cracking down on freedom of expression, including a recent prohibition against sharing information about COVID-19 outbreaks on social media. Mainland Tanzania will not provide an external moderating influence for political disputes in Zanzibar and will instead reinforce single-party governance.

Finally, institutions that should be neutral arbiters have transparently behaved as partisan tools since the last election. The Zanzibar Electoral Commission, which is responsible for administrating and overseeing each election, has always been comprised of political appointees, but the 2015 election removed all doubt about its mandate. After the Civic United Front won the 2015 election, the chair of the Zanzibar Electoral Commission unilaterally discarded the results, calling for a new election. The ZEC became an openly political actor rather than the neutral conductor of free and fair elections it is mandated to be.

Perhaps even more problematic is the recent interference by Tanzanian courts in internal party disputes. In March of 2019, the Tanzanian High Court turned over the leadership of the main opposition party from Seif Hamad to Ibrahim Lipumba. Lipumba had previously resigned from the party, and the clear intent of the court was to weaken and disrupt the opposition party. Hamad and most of his followers literally took the furniture with them to a new political home under the banner of ACT Wazalendo, where he is in a strong position to win the election outright in October. But the ZEC and the courts have both demonstrated that they will be complicit in maintaining the status quo of single-party governance against the will of the people.

The 2020 election in Zanzibar is likely already predetermined to continue the single-party governance of the CCM and is just as likely to be disputed by Seif Hamad and ACT Wazalendo. Through disenfranchisement, authoritarianism, and complicit internal institutions, it is unlikely the election will be free, fair, or representative of the will of the people. The persistent political problem of contested elections in Zanzibar has not been solved by internal or external political stakeholders.

A 2019 report on political tensions in Zanzibar by the International Crisis Group pointed to religious leaders and civil society as trusted brokers to ensure political detente and even a potential transition. Even though Tanzania’s President Magufuli has worked to shrink the influence of these two overlapping groups, their influence remains significant in Zanzibar. Such leaders pressing for free, fair, and representative elections may be the last best hope Zanzibar has to prevent another democracy from teetering ever closer to authoritarianism.