Polls have opened across Mozambique for presidential, parliamentary and provincial elections seen as a test of a recent peace deal between the ruling party and the armed opposition.
Nearly 13 million voters are registered in the southern African nation, though some observers warn that insecurity might keep some from voting.
Vote counting will start after polls close at 6pm local time (16:00 GMT) and is expected to continue through the night. Preliminary results are expected on Wednesday.
Tensions were high in Mozambique on the eve of elections which will likely see President Filipe Nyusi and his ruling Frelimo party maintain their grip on power amid fears the violence that marred the campaign may continue on polling day.
While Nyusi is widely expected to win a second term in Tuesday’s presidential vote, the main opposition is eyeing the opportunity for a strong performance in provincial and legislative races. The polls mark the first time provincial governors, previously appointed by the president, are elected in Mozambique
According to local NGO The Centre for Public Integrity, 44 people were killed during the election campaign – most in road accidents and some in a stadium stampede at a pro-Nyusi rally, but seven were murdered.
The United States Embassy warned on Friday of “credible threats” of violence in Nampula, advising US citizens to avoid the northern city. A travel advisory was also issued for Xai-Xai, the capital of Gaza province, where this month the head of local election observation efforts, Anastacio Matavel, was shot dead by a group of special operations police.
“We’ve never had free and fair elections, but these are the worst yet because of the gravity of the violence,” said Alice Mabota, a veteran human rights campaigner. Mabota was running as an independent, backed by the new Democratic Alliance Coalition, but her candidacy was blocked over allegations that some of her nomination signatures were fake.
Nampula, the country’s biggest city outside of the capital, Maputo, and the adjoining city of Matola, are run at the municipal level by the main opposition Renamo party.
Renamo leader Ossufo Momade is the favourite to win the governorship in Nampula province – such a result will see Momade becoming the first provincial governor from a party other than Frelimo, which has been in power since Mozambique won independence from Portugal in 1975.
But he will not be as powerful as governors have been up to now, as the president will appoint a secretary of state to work alongside the elected governor as the central government’s representative in the province – taking many of the most important powers that governors currently have.
If Momade is satisfied with winning the governorship of Nampula, many of Renamo’s supporters will want more – and his rallies, particularly in northern and central Mozambique, have been attracting impressive crowds, according to Adriano Nuvunga, of the Centre for Democracy and Development in Maputo.
“Before the campaign, we had the impression that Momade would fall so short of [former Renamo leader Afonso] Dhlakama. But by the end of the campaign, it was not clear who is more popular between Nyusi and Momade. If the numbers we saw from the campaign were to be reflected in the elections, it would be too close to call.”
The candidates’ real popularity may not be accurately reflected in the polling figures, however.
“The reason they murdered Anastacio Matavel was to send a warning that Gaza province is a no-go area for observers,” Nuvunga said.
Gaza province has a particular spotlight on it this year after a voter registration drive in April signed up 300,000 more voters than the national census said live in the province.
Gaza reliably votes 90 percent and upwards for Frelimo, and the opposition believes those 300,000 extra votes will be awarded to the ruling party by biased election administrators in the pocket of local party chiefs.
“They will create ghost polling stations,” Nuvunga said, “so at the end of the day, we will have more tally sheets coming from Gaza than the real polling stations. They know that even with the intimidation, international observers and journalists will be there – so that is the safe way of doing it.”
Suspicion and mistrust
In Zambezia province, central Mozambique, Renamo’s candidate for governor and current mayor of the provincial capital, Quelimane, forecast violence on election day in an interview with German news channel DW on Sunday.
Manuel de Araujo told voters they should stay at polling stations after voting to ensure their votes are not stolen – in direct contravention of instructions from the electoral authorities and police.
“We expect great violence on the day of the elections,” Araujo said, pointing to the fact that Interior Minister Basilio Monteiro is “player and referee”, commanding the nation’s police force while also being the ruling party’s chief campaigner for Zambezia province.
There have been calls for Monteiro’s dismissal as minister, from the opposition and in the media, since the police admitted last week that four of the gang of five that killed Matavel were police officers.
Leading weekly newspaper Savana said on Friday that its investigation had revealed that all five belonged to the police. The national chief of police suspended the head of the riot police and its special operations unit in Gaza province, and launched an internal investigation into the event.
But observers say that police “death squads” are nothing new – what is new is that this time, they were caught red-handed, crashing their car at high speed as they fled the scene.
The violence and manipulation at these elections are “visible to the naked eye”, Mabota argued, “but no one does anything. Before you couldn’t see the fraud. Now it’s obvious – and no one says anything. I don’t know what the international observers want. Oil and gas speaks louder than justice and fair elections.”
Nyusi sees peace with Renamo as the greatest achievement of his presidency, after conflict flared up in 2013 and again in 2015-16 over Renamo’s rejection of the 2014 election result and call for provincial governors to be elected.
The introduction of elected provincial governors is a key concession to get Renamo to lay down its arms – but elements of the party, particularly the residual military wing, are unhappy with the deal. Incidents of violence in recent days in central Mozambique have caused people to flee their homes for the first time since a truce was signed at the end of 2016.
Besides the conflict with Renamo, Nyusi’s first term has been dominated by a corruption scandal that crashed the economy.
The fraud, or “hidden debts”, as they have become known, was carried out by the previous administration but was only discovered by the media in 2016 – and Nyusi has been unable to distance himself from the scandal as he approved the deals as defence minister under former President Armando Guebuza.
Manuel Chang, the then-finance minister who gave secret guarantees to allow companies owned by the military and secret services to borrow $2bn from Credit Suisse and VTB Capital to buy patrol boats from Lebanese group Privinvest, will appear in a court in Johannesburg on Wednesday to continue his fight against being extradited to the US to face trial for his part in the deals.
That trial will start this week even without Chang’s presence, with Privinvest executive Jean Boustani in the dock. Three former Credit Suisse bankers have entered into plea bargains with the US authorities.
But the ongoing saga may not hit Frelimo so hard at the polls, Nuvunga said.
“My biggest fear is that the hidden debt scandal will benefit Frelimo – because it will make people stay away from polling stations, because they’re disillusioned. Anger exists, but it is not politicised enough.”