Mozambique will hold its national general election, including the presidential, legislative and provincial elections, on 15 October 2019 in a vote which is expected to substantially change the political environment in the country. This is because this election will be the first national ballot under the new decentralised system allowing provincial assemblies to elect governors as opposed to the provincial executive being centrally appointed by the president. This means that for the first time in Mozambique’s history some provinces will be governed by the opposition.
The decentralised system was a key condition of the recent internationally facilitated peace talks between the Frelimo-led government and Renamo, the country’s largest opposition party and former rebel group. These talks ended the recent low-level conflict between the government and Renamo and tried to ensure that Renamo would not return to an insurgency. By enabling provincial legislatures to elect governors, Renamo will now govern in provinces in which it has a majority of support, giving it access to significant political power, systems of patronage, and enabling it to deploy its members within the provincial government. In return, Renamo has agreed to disarm and demobilise its forces.
Due to the historic nature of the election, the campaign period has seen heightened political tensions and incidents of violence. This has included reports of intimidation of opposition politicians and attacks on civil society leaders, journalists, and democracy activists. Arguably the most concerning incident to date was the murder of an election observer in Gaza province on 7 October 2017. This is believed to have been a targeted hit and members of the Mozambican security forces have been implicated in the crime. Gaza has become a focal point for election observers after a controversy over the number of registered voters here.
The dispute entails the suspiciously high number of voters registered in the province – 1.1 million registered voters for a provincial population of 1.45 million people. The fallout is believed to be behind the resignation of the head of National Statistics Institute (INE/Instituto Nacional de Estatística), Rosario Fernandes, after she raised concerns about the numbers. Gaza has historically been one of Frelimo’s safest electoral areas with the opposition having little more than a token presence. However, a surge in the number of voters could ensure Frelimo retains a comfortable majority in the legislature, the Assembly of the Republic, should the legislative election become too close for comfort.
Frelimo is believed to be worried about keeping its majority in the legislature. The party’s leader President Filipe Nyusi is expected to win the presidential election comfortably as he is more popular and charismatic than his nearest rival, Renamo leader Ossufo Momade. However, Frelimo’s political support has suffered from several corruption scandals, the most significant being the 2016 revelation of almost US$2 billion in undisclosed debt. The discovery led to the suspension of financial and budgetary aid to the country and a prolonged economic and financial crisis. This scandal worsened when it emerged that large portions of the loans were unaccounted for. The debt is also the subject of high-profile investigations by Mozambique’s Attorney-General and the United States’ Justice Department. Multiple high-profile arrests have been made including senior Frelimo figures such as former finance minister Manuel Chang. This debt scandal along with general corruption fatigue has raised fear within Frelimo that its control of the Assembly of the Republic is under at threat for the first time – a risk many hardliners consider unacceptable.
The main focus of the election, however, will be provincial elections, especially the central provinces of Manica, Nampula, Niassa, Sofala, Tete, and Zambézia. Frelimo is expected to retain control of Manica and Niassa while Renamo is widely expected to take Zambézia and Sofala. The strategically and economically important provinces of Nampula and Tete are currently considered too close to call and will likely receive increased attention from both main political parties – they are also most likely to see a disputed election and accusations of electoral fraud.
The election has been further complicated by two ongoing armed insurgencies in the country. The first is the Islamist insurgency in Cabo Delgado province which has been ongoing since 2017. The Al-Sunna wa Jama’a group has continued to carry out attacks in the province making electoral campaigning difficult and fueling fears of attacks on voting stations.
The second insurgency is by a group of Renamo dissidents calling itself the Renamo Military Junta. Led by former Renamo general Mariano Nhongo, the group is opposed to Momade’s leadership and the peace agreement and has pledged to disrupt the election. The extent of the group’s support is unknown but is estimated to be a few dozen fighters. While this is a minority of Renamo’s forces it is still significant enough to cause disruptions. The group has claimed responsibility for attacks in the past two months in the central provinces of Sofala and Manica. Renamo has disavowed the group and called on the government to arrest Nhongo and his supporters. However, dissident militants are expected to try and attack polling stations on 15 October 2019, most likely in the central provinces of Niassa, Manica, Sofala, Nampula, Tete, and Zambézia.
Aside from the threat of militant attacks in central and northern Mozambique, there is a strong likelihood of political violence on voting day and in the immediate post-election period. The possibility of protests and clashes will increase in the expected event of electoral disputes and allegations of wrongdoing – especially after the announcement of the election results. If the National Electoral Commission (CNE/Comissão Nacional de Eleições) delays announcing results for whatever reason, protests in urban areas and Renamo strongholds are expected.
The fundamental purpose of the decentralised system was to enable Renamo to win provincial power and ensure that the group is invested in the political process. Should Renamo fail to win control of any provinces, which would indicate some electoral malfeasance, the peace agreement would likely collapse and the party would return to its insurgency. Accordingly, independent and international election monitors will be watching the election closely and pressuring Mozambican officials to ensure a free and transparent process. While some level of electoral fraud is expected, it is generally expected that Renamo will accept the result should it secure control of two or more provinces.