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Tanzania's opposition ‘heavyweights’ are bouncing back to the ruling party

Categories: Sub-Saharan Africa, Tanzania, Elections, Freedom of Speech, Governance

Edward Lowassa was a long-time ruling party CCM member until he was banned from running for president and joined opposition party CHADEMA. Recently, he bounced back to CCM. Screenshot via KTN News Kenya on YouTube. October 18, 2015.

In Tanzania, high-profile opposition party members have defected to the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi, [1] or the Party of the Revolution, casting a shadow on multi-party politics in the East African nation.

Most defectors come from the leading opposition party, Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo, or CHADEMA, the Democracy and Development party. Four CHADEMA members of parliament, 75 councilors and several village chairmen have joined CCM in the last few years. 

The Tanzania Constitution Forum [1] has called for a constitutional amendment to bar defections. “The aim is to avoid unnecessary costs the government incurs in organizing frequent by-elections,” said TCF chairman Hebron Mwakagenda, according to the East African.

The National Electoral Commission has conducted several by-elections [1] at a high cost that yielded below 50 percent voter turnouts. Campaigns have created fear and lack of trust among citizens.

The case of Edward Lowassa

On March 1, 2019, retired prime minister Edward Lowassa, member of the central committee of CHADEMA, bounced back to CCM, his longtime party, after defecting from it four years ago.

At a brief public ceremony, CCM chairman and Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli [2] warmly welcomed  Lowassa: 

Mr. Lowassa has shown himself to be a true gentleman. We are taught to forgive… and our aim is to build a new, united Tanzania with no political conflicts.

Lowassa confirmed that he is back home [2] and there is no reason now for him to be in opposition.

Lowassa is one of few groomed by one of the earliest parties, the Tanganyika African National Union party, or TANU, formed before Tanzania's independence from Britain in 1961, and later, CCM’s youth wing during the days of a single-party system.

Under the auspices of CCM, Lowassa served as MP for the Monduli district for 25 years and held ministerial responsibilities in parliament over four decades. In 2008, while serving as prime minister [4] under then-President Jakaya Kikwete, Lowassa was forced to resign [5] after being implicated in a fraud scandal.

Lowassa moved to CHADEMA on August 4, 2015, just before the general election, after the CCM banned him from running as a presidential candidate. He condemned CCM and its leaders as “dictators, undemocratic and greedy power mongers.” [6]

CHADEMA then nominated Lowassa as a presidential candidate under UKAWA, a coalition of opposition parties. In the 2015 general election, Lowassa obtained 6 million votes [7], around 40 percent, against CCM’s Magufuli, who got 8.8 million votes or nearly 60 percent.

With Lowassa’s political influence, opposition parties, CHADEMA earned 70 seats in parliament compared to 48 [1] in 2010, while the Civic United Front (CUF), also a member of UKAWA, earned 45 seats compared to 36.

Welcomed or lured back?

Lowassa’s return to the ruling party sparked both praise and ridicule from politicians and prominent political analysts. CCM spokesman Humphrey Polepole congratulated Lowassa [8] for his bold move to return to his longtime party:

  To come back to apologize is a great wisdom and humility.

Others have argued that high defection rates are not good for national politics.  Magdalena Sakaya, CUF deputy secretary general for mainland Tanzania, said the move is “bad for democracy,” [9] and signals a conspiracy to kill the opposition, she added.

Dr. Adolf Mihanjo, head of the faculty of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Dar es Salaam, termed defectors as people who lack ideology and only seek leadership positions:

People have started feeling that defectors are being bribed  [1]— this is dangerous.

Likewise, CUF deputy secretary general for the islands of Zanzibar, Nassoro Mazrui, expressed pessimism with Tanzania’s political future, saying corruption [10] has engulfed multi-party politics. CHADEMA chairperson Freeman Mbowe believes that defectors [9]are being lured by CCM as a way of muzzling the opposition.

However, Maulid Mtulia and Godwin Mollel, two defectors who joined CCM last year, said they made the switch out of satisfaction with Magufuli’s performance. Opposition party leader Zitto Kabwe, of the ACT-Wazalendo party and MP for Kigoma Urban, rejected their claims [11], calling them “empty reasons without grounds and backings.”

Dr. Richard Mbunda, a political science professor at the University of Dar es Salaam, cautioned that it is hard to regain legitimacy once it's gone. Defections create “self-disenfranchisement” [12] which can be disastrous: The government could slip as a democracy which could then lead to civil disobedience and illegitimate governance, he observed.

Squeezed civic space for opposition political parties

Tanzania legalized multi-party democracy in 1992 under Article 3 (1) of the constitution. In a multi-party democracy, political parties play a fundamental role in providing stability and peace needed for peaceful political transitions. However, the current government has imposed a series of restrictions that limit the power of opposition parties, such as limitations on political rallies and live-broadcasting parliamentary sessions.

In February, new amendments to the Political Parties Act [13] were passed that further limit opposition politics. Since Magufuli assumed power in 2015, there's been a continuous squeeze on civic, political and social spaces through various bills and legislation to limit freedom of expression online and in the streets.

Politicians — including national party leaders — are only allowed to hold rallies [1] within their constituencies. Violators face arrest and prosecution. ACT’s Kabwe was ordered to report to the regional police commander of the southern region of Lindi for conducting a political rally out of his constituency. Kawe district MP Halima Mdee was arrested after speaking to her voters for the reason of “conducting a meeting without permission.”

Given the current state of Tanzania multi-party politics with defections of heavyweight opposition party members like Lowassa, multi-party politics struggle to thrive. Since its beginning, though, the hope was for the scope of democracy to expand.