Friday, October 29, 2010

Democracy Shmemocracy: Party Politics in Tanzania

Despite a handful of predictable disputes in the voting process, election outcomes, and the fairness of the Electoral College, the US is a democratic country. Even if it’s not a PERFECT democracy—if Wyomingans are over-represented and some voting districts slightly Gerrymandered—there are still certain democratic aspects of our government that we can always count on: We will ALWAYS have an election the second Tuesday of November. The candidate declared the winner will take office, and the loser will peacefully and respectfully leave office. An opposition candidate running for public office isn’t in danger of being assassinated by the incumbent party’s not-so-secret pack of AK-47-wielding thugs. Voters are not threatened or intimidated at the polls, and our votes are confidential so we don’t fear reprisal for voting for one candidate over another. And, most importantly, we assume with pretty much 100% certainty that the number of votes counted is equal to the number of votes cast, and that the outcome of the election isn’t maliciously rigged to ensure an incumbent party victory.

On the other hand, there’s Africa. Here, elections are postponed indefinitely without reason by an incumbent who fears being ousted. When long-awaited elections actually happen, sometimes people’s votes aren’t secret and the government forces are scary enough that everyone votes for the incumbent out of fear.  If an incumbent leader happens to lose an election, he stays in office and appoints the actual winner of the election as Prime Minister (Kenya in 2007, Zimbabwe in 2009). Opposition candidates, party leaders and organizers, and vocal individuals who speak out against the government’s policies or management are “disappeared” (kidnapped and killed) or assassinated. And, in many countries, so-called “democratic” elections are more for show than anything, held only to prove to international donors like the US that the government is “trying” to democratize and is therefore worthy of aid. (There’s also an outside chance that a democratically elected leader will be assassinated by an outside force…like the CIA. Ex: Patrice Lumumba of the Congo in 1961.)

Tanzania is a great example of the strange incarnation of “democracy” in Africa. The country held its first post-independence election in 1961, shortly after independence from the British. In this election, Julius Nyerere was elected as the first president of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, which he combined into “The United Republic of Tanzania” (“Tan…ia” for Tanganyika and “…zanz…” for Zanzibar…get it?). Nyerere and his Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM, Party of the Revolution in English) wrote the constitution and established the foundation for modern politics in Tanzania, including the systematic suppression of opposition parties. Nyerere held the presidency  for 24 years until the country’s first “multi-party” democratic elections in 1985. Ali Hassan Mwinyi (President 1985-1995), Benjamin Mkapa (1995-2005), and Jakaya Kikwete (2005-present) have all been member of the CCM political party, and Kikwete is expected to be re-elected again this year.

On paper, Tanzania is a democracy. The country has a democratically elected leader voted for by the entire 18-and-over population of Tanzania, and elections are held every 5 years on the last Sunday of October. Opposition parties are allowed to form and operate without official legal repercussions, and the constitution allows Tanzanians the freedom of association with any party they choose. (Currently there are two serious opposition parties: CUF and Chadema. Chadema is the largest opposition party on the mainland, and CUF on Zanzibar.) On election day, people go to the polls and vote in privacy, and votes are sealed in their boxes by officers of the law before being transported to the nearest vote-counting station. The person with the most votes takes office, the other candidates are the losers. Et cetera.

But, in practice, it’s a lot more complicated…and a lot less democratic. Voters are discouraged from registering to vote or kept from voting by tactics similar to those used on African American voters in the 1960s. The CCM uses government funds (a LOT of government funds), government airplanes, government buildings, government workers, and government media and television outlets, and other government resources to promote itself, but the CUF and Chadema have to fund their campaigns through private donations solicited largely from a population of impoverished Tanzanians. There’s even rumor (though somewhat more substantiated than rumor…) of CCM officials buying the voter registration cards of under-35’s for as little as $4 so that they can’t vote for Chadema come election day, or “losing” entire pages of registered voters names at the polling stations. (They have two sections for voting: under 35, and over 35. Since it’s under 35’s who tend to vote Chadema, by losing just one page of voters’ names it’s very easy to eliminate non-CCM votes.) In rural areas, police (who are government employees under the CCM government) intimidate uneducated voters by hinting that their safety could be jeopardized if CCM left power, and on election day they stand outside polls with their automatic weapons so that nobody forgets who holds the power. Candidates who draw attention to CCM corruption or Kikwete’s failed policies end up in jail on “treason” charges and are no longer eligible to run for office; others running for local offices mysteriously die of “natural” causes. This year, the government announced that colleges and universities (which are usually closed until after the election) would open 3 days BEFORE election day, meaning that the largely Chadema-supporting college population will be away at school instead of at home to vote on Sunday, and there’s no option like absentee voting. And then, even if all the CCM-favoring election-skewing plots prove ineffective, there’s always the fall-back option of just tampering with the votes before they’re officially counted. After all, it’s the polling station workers (hired by CCM) and police officers (hired by CCM) who are responsible for securing the votes and certifying their validity.

On Thursday afternoon I attended a Chadema (Chama Cha Demokracia na Maendeleo, or Party of Democracy and Development) political rally for Doctor Slaa, the most popular opposition presidential candidate on the mainland. Despite the fact that he never showed up (TIA, right?) and that I only understood about 40% of what various candidates yelled crazy-African-preacher-style over the loudspeaker, it was a really interesting and enlightening experience. I made friends with two high school teachers and we discussed (in Swahili!) the election, the history of Tanzania, and the platforms and promises of various parties and candidates.

At one point, I asked them if they thought Doctor Slaa would win on Sunday and they both laughed at me like I was ridiculous. They were there to show their support, they said, for any kind of non-CCM change, but it has to happen gradually. Five years ago, an opposition rally like Thursday’s NEVER would have happened. Candidates would have been afraid to speak out against CCM, and people would have been afraid to show up to such a rally for fear that their businesses or families would be harmed as a result of their participation (or just their curiosity). “Chadema isn’t campaigning for 2010, they’re campaigning for 2015. We’re all here to show other people that if they, too, can support another party and not be killed.” They said that if on Sunday they vocally vote for Chadema and then aren’t punished by the CCM, maybe their CCM-fearing friends and neighbors will consider voting for someone other than CCM in 2015.

They also laughed when I asked if Tanzania had ever had “free and fair” elections. According to the Carter Center, which monitors this kind of thing, Tanzania’s 2000 election was fair, but 2005 was rigged in favor of the CCM, and regional elections on the island of Zanzibar have never been fair. But my teacher friends (and most everyone else I talk to about it, including Tanzanians, expats living here, and second- or third-generation immigrants) say that the country’s never had a democratic election. The concept of democracy is simply too new for anyone to trust its effectiveness and safety, so they just vote like they always have, even when CCM was the only party in the race. One of the teachers said he suspected that only about 30% of votes cast for Chadema would actually survive the ballot box long enough to make it to the official count, and that CCM had decades of experience in buying votes, fabricating ballots, and in their own special kind of less-than-impartial vote counting.

Even if this ISN’T true (which, honestly, who knows?), it’s frighteningly undemocratic that the people of Tanzania have so little faith in their trustworthiness of their government, and so little belief in the importance of their vote, that this kind of belief even SEEMS believable. Whether it’s true or not, if you were worried that you might be killed, injured, denied a job, or punished in some other way for voting for an opposition candidate, and were 70% sure that your Chadema/CUF vote would be thrown away anyway, wouldn’t you just vote CCM, too? It’s amazing to me that people still run for office on a non-CCM ticket, or donate to non-CCM political campaigns, or show up to non-CCM political rallies to show their support for NOT the CCM. (There’s no free food at said rallies…but sometimes there is at CCM rallies.) If there was complete political freedom in Tanzania, how many more people would support Chadema over the CCM?

Anyway, it’s something interesting to think about as we near Election Day in the US. When you cast your vote next Tuesday (and please do…especially if you’re a Democrat), you’ll be doing it without fear for your life, and you’ll be confident that your vote counts for something regardless of who you vote for. That’s a right (well, we consider it a right) that most people in the world simply don’t have, even in so-called “democracies.”

Chadema is an approximate acronym that stands for Chama Cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo, or The Party of Democracy and Development. Chadema is the largest opposition party in Tanzania (on the mainland at least), and this is their flag.
Chadema supporters holding up peace signs to show their support of Doctor Slaa, the main challenge to the incumbent President Kikwete in Sunday's election. The sign there translates to "Doctor Slaa--You are our only hope. We believe in you, and we need Chadema!"
Vuvuzelas have taken over the world! This guy is also wearing a Chadema flag as a shirt and his sweet dance moves kept me entertained during long speeches I only partially understood.
A little boy toting around a pro-Chadema sign at the political rally on Thursday afternoon. It translates as "We believe in you, we need you Doctor Slaa! Doctor Slaa is the lion of the war!" And then there's a sentence I can't read because all the letters are crammed together.
The HQ for the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party for the Iringa Region. That guy is President Kikwete.

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