Tanzania’s opposition leader denounced “widespread irregularities” at polling stations as voting got under way on Wednesday, warning he would call for mass demonstrations if it continued.
Opposition leader Tundu Lissu – who survived being shot 16 times in an assassination attempt three years ago – is facing off against incumbent John Magufuli, who has made controversial claims including that prayer can prevent COVID-19.
The run-up to the East African country’s polls has been marred with violence and rights groups and the opposition have reported intimidation.
“Voting reports indicate widespread irregularities in the form of preventing our polling agents from accessing polling stations. Stuffed ballot boxes seized,” Lissu tweeted.
“If this continues, mass democratic action will be the only option to protect the integrity of the election,” he added.
President Magufuli, in power since 2015, is widely expected to win, in spite the recent return to the country of Lissu, in exile since the attempt on his life when he suffered 16 bullet wounds.
After casting his vote on Wednesday, President Magufuli urged Tanzanians to turn out to vote and conduct a “peaceful” election.
“We should remember that there is life after elections,” he said.
The situation already proved volatile during early voting in the semi-autonomous region of Zanzibar on Tuesday, as the archipelago’s main opposition party claimed police shot five people dead. Police denied this.
The island’s opposition candidate for regional president – the ACT-Wazalendo’s leader, Seif Sharif Hamad – was also arrested on Tuesday but has since been released.
Amnesty International this month warned that Magufuli was cracking down on dissent and free expression ahead of the polls, and on the eve of the vote the United Nations and the AU Commission urged Tanzania to ensure a peaceful and fair election.
In September, Lissu’s campaign convoy was tear-gassed in northern Tanzania, after a disagreement with the police on which route it was supposed to take.
Lissu was also suspended from campaigning for one week by the national electoral body, which he called “yet another indication of a discredited and compromised electoral system.”
Press freedom has been severely curtailed in the lead-up to the vote, with new rules introduced in August requiring foreign journalists to be chaperoned on assignments by a government official.
Over the years, Magufuli has received lots of international media attention due to his government’s crackdown on gay people, banning the sale of lubricant and subjecting arrested gay men to forced anal exams – a recognised human rights violation.
Most recently he caused derision after saying prayer and herbal steam baths could help prevent infection with coronavirus and later declaring the country free of the virus.
His handling of the pandemic has come under heavy criticism, with critics saying he did too little, too late, to stem the spread of the virus.