Tanzania’s electoral law reform is overdue for an overhaul. This was made most apparent by the 2019 local elections and the 2020 general elections. The results were big wins for the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM): 99% of local authorities, 98.9% of parliamentary seats and 84% of the presidential vote.
These margins of victory were contested. The United Nations, research think-tanks and various media noted these elections as the most unfree and unfair since the return of the multiparty system in 1992.
The 2019 and 2020 elections, more than the previous ones, underscored the extent to which the electoral law could be abused by the state. Under the administration of the late President John Magufuli, the state used the electoral machinery to deprive the opposition of seats in local government authorities and in parliament.
Opposition parties and civil rights activists have been demanding a level playing field. The changes on their list include constitutional reforms, an independent electoral commission, independent election returning officers, provision for independent candidates, the ability to contest election results in court, and review of the first-past-the-post system.
I have researched party politics in Tanzania and it is my view that electoral reforms are urgent, given that local elections are scheduled for December 2024. The general election will follow in October 2025.
Opposition parties have the right to a level playing field. That is not likely under the existing legal set-up. The proposed bills are largely maintaining the status quo. The incumbent president, who chairs the ruling party and is the presidential candidate, appoints members of the electoral commission as well as the returning officers. Change is needed in the selection process to ensure their independence.
To understand the influence of the ruling party’s control of the electoral framework in Tanzania it is important to look back at the history of the multiparty system. In 1965, four years after independence, the first president, Julius Nyerere, introduced a one-party system. This was later enshrined in the constitution of 1977, blurring the line between the ruling party and the state.
The party-state institutional entrenchment restricted pressure groups, trade unions and any other citizen-based groups for decades. The 1992 amendment of the 1977 constitution to allow for a multiparty system arrived in this context. Most political parties registered were the vehicles of a few individuals rather than growing out of citizen-based movements.
In this context, the state, rather than citizens, had space to determine the political and electoral laws that were introduced to facilitate the multiparty state. All important political decision making, including the elections, remained with the president.
It comes as no surprise that all elections since the re-introduction of the multiparty system have delivered victory to the ruling party.
Reform package falls short
Under President Samia Suluhu Hassan, Tanzania sensed a golden opportunity to reform the election landscape. Soon after assuming power in 2021, the new president opened reconciliation talks with the main opposition party, Chadema. Top of the agenda was electoral law reform. This also featured strongly in submissions to a special task force formed by the government to collect opinions on political reforms.
In 2022, in an open letter marking 30 years of multipartyism, Suluhu vowed to pursue with vigour four key tenets: reconciliation, resilience, reforms and rebuilding.
The government promised to start the review process and subsequently tabled the electoral law reforms bills in the parliament. These are the National Electoral Commission Bill, 2023, the Presidential, Parliamentary and Local Government Elections Bill, 2023, and the Political Parties Affairs Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2023.
The bills were not a reflection of the demands for change, however. For example, the presidential power to appoint the members of the electoral commission was retained. All the bills maintained the status quo and none of the above concerns were taken into consideration.
Opposition parties, activists and faith leaders demanded the withdrawal of the bills from the parliament, which was to discuss them in February 2024. Since 99% of members of parliament are from the ruling party and given the recent history of bill passing, critics are worried that the parliament will pass all the bills as they are.
Despite the demonstrations by Chadema on 24 January 2024 demanding the withdrawal of the bills, discussion went ahead in parliament on 30 January. Continuing with the debates in parliament shows that the bills will pass. This indicates that the 2024 and 2025 elections are unlikely to be fair and free. In reaction to this, Chadema has called for more demonstrations in three other big cities from 13 February.
For change to occur, the opposition must put pressure on the government through peaceful but continuous countrywide demonstrations, public rallies and international support to demand true political reforms before the next elections.
Aikande Clement Kwayu, Independent researcher & Lecturer, Tumaini University Makumira