People queue at Chota Primary School in Beira, Mozambique on October 15, 2019.PHOTO: PATRICK MEINHARDT / AFP
Mozambique began voting in a general election on Tuesday that some fear could test the country’s fragile peace, after a heated campaign marred by violence and allegations of electoral fraud.
The Frelimo party, which has ruled the southern African nation since independence from Portugal in 1975, is widely expected to again beat its arch-rival Renamo, a former rebel group turned main opposition party.
President Filipe Nyusi, who cast his ballot as polls opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT), called on voters to show “the world we stand for democracy and tolerance”.
“Mozambique has chosen to move forward peacefully,” he said, adding that more than 4,000 observers had been deployed in the most-watched election in the country’s history.
“Let’s continue this process in a serene way. Peace means that everything must be done according to the rules.”
Nyusi, 60, is forecast to win a second five-year term despite his popularity taking a hit from chronic unrest and a financial crisis linked to alleged state corruption.
While the election is expected to see regional wins for Renamo, few think Frelimo will be unseated from the government after 44 years at the helm.
“Frelimo is a machine,” said Castro Davis, a 42-year-old public servant in the capital Maputo, predicting a “straight-forward victory.”
Elena Jorge, 50, told AFP she wants Renamo to win “but people know that these elections will not be free, fair or transparent — but we have hope.”
Around 13 million of Mozambique’s 30 million citizens are registered to vote at more than 20,000 polling booths, which close at 6:00 pm (1600 GMT).
‘Test for democracy’
Renamo is predicted to take control of three to five of Mozambique’s 10 provinces for the first time following a change of law allowing voters to elect provincial governors.
“This election will be a test for democracy,” said Ericino de Salema of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa.
“For the first time, the political geography of the country may change substantially, it may even lead to confrontation.”
Renamo’s candidate Ossufo Momade, 58, heads a party of former anti-communist rebels who fought a brutal civil war with Frelimo from 1975-1992, devastating the economy and leaving almost one million people dead.
Renamo picked up arms again in 2013 to 2016, but tension continued until Nyusi and Momade signed a peace deal in August.
But an armed breakaway faction of Renamo has rejected Momade’s candidacy and threatened to attack campaign events, raising fears the presidential, parliamentary and provincial polls could be marred by bloodshed.
The six-week campaign was one of the most violent in the country’s turbulent history, with candidates threatened, election material destroyed, and deadly clashes breaking out between supporters.
The opposition has already accused Frelimo of tampering with the vote.
Enrolment has more than doubled in the southeastern Gaza province, a Frelimo bastion, and civil society groups have expressed concern about the size of the increase.
They also estimate that there are around 300,000 “ghost voters” on electoral rolls — names on the electoral roll not aligned with real, potential voters.
“We definitely have some irregularities that put stains on the whole process,” said Hermenegildo Mulhovo of election monitoring group Sala da Paz.
The situation escalated last week when the head of a local election observation mission was shot dead by members of a special police unit in Gaza’s capital Xai-Xai.
Lutero Simango, an MP of the country’s third-biggest party MDM, accused Frelimo of “using all state means, including police and secret services, to intimidate people”.
Scandals and setbacks
Frelimo suffered its worst result at the ballot box — 51.8 percent — in local elections last year and has been severely weakened in recent years.
In 2016 it was revealed the government secretly borrowed $2 billion, sparking the worst financial crisis in the country’s history and uncovering a vast corruption network with links to the regime.
The government is also battling to recover from two devastating cyclones in March which displaced nearly two million people.
And a shadowy jihadist insurgency that has killed hundreds in the far north has delayed development of one of the government’s biggest selling points — the discovery of vast gas reserves that is hoped to put billions in state coffers and lift millions out of poverty.
The instability has already forced the National Election Commission to close 10 polling booths.
Preliminary results are expected to be announced on Thursday.