Mozambique elections: a close call?
With numerous issues at play ahead of Mozambique’ general election next week, Frelimo’s outright dominance is no longer a done deal
Among Mozambique’s materially ambitious crowd, changuissimo has become a buzzword for doing a quick, illicit deal for easy money. It is used with a mixture of scorn and admiration for the man behind it — Manuel Chang. He stands accused of signing off undisclosed loans totalling $2bn during his 2005-2015 stint as finance minister.
The scandal in which Chang (who denies wrongdoing) and several high-ranking politicians are implicated looms large in the run-up to the October 15 general election, the sixth multiparty poll since the country’s civil war ended in 1992.
Despite the scale of his alleged crime, Chang has been depicted in some quarters as a hero. "People look [up] to him," says Adérito Caldeira, editor in chief of @Verdade, a current affairs magazine in Maputo. "They say: ‘He stole big from the white people, hiding from this big villain that is the IMF [International Monetary Fund].’"
Many Mozambicans consider the fund to be an imperialist, neocolonial institution. It cut its support after the debt scandal was exposed in 2016, triggering a currency collapse and debt default.
"For some people it’s not the debt that started it all, it’s the IMF," Caldeira explains. At the same time, he says President Filipe Nyusi has been able to depict himself as a clean, fresh start, because much of the alleged graft happened on the watch of his predecessor, Armando Guebuza.
Nyusi’s government has, however, been grappling with beheadings and the burning of villages by extremist Islamists in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, where 200 people have been killed since October 2017.
The causes are complex but seem to overlap with business interests, including newly discovered gas and oil reserves. An apparent inability to deal with the issue has reflected badly on the government, and last month it accepted private military help from a Russian company.
Opposition infighting is another concern. Some in Renamo are revolting against the ceasefire signed with the ruling Frelimo in August.
Though some observers have called this insignificant, Caldeira says the head of Renamo’s parliamentary grouping, Ivone Soares, admitted to divisions during a newspaper interview. "It seems it’s not just people in the jungle who are unhappy, but also Renamo in the main towns. It really is a big split. Renamo united might not be enough to deal with Frelimo, and divided it is even worse."
Soares is the niece of Afonso Dhlakama, the late Renamo leader, who is still revered and considered to have been more capable than his successor, Ossufo Momade. Keeping Renamo united is important for Momade’s presidential campaign, as well as his party’s image and successful elections.
Nature’s forces have also played a role in the run-up to the election. Two devastating cyclones caused the deaths of an estimated 600 Mozambicans and left 1.85-million homeless earlier this year, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Those who fled the cyclone-hit areas — mainly around Beira and Cabo Delgado — are unlikely to return to vote, while opposition parties have accused the government of misappropriating aid money to fund campaigns, according to a recent Institute for Security Studies report by analyst Liesl Louw-Vaudran.
There’s been much criticism of Frelimo, which has governed since independence in 1976. But its 51.8% share of the vote in last year’s municipal elections indicates it may drop below 50% for the first time, forcing a second-round runoff with main rival Renamo, which got 38.9%.
Though a lack of opinion polls makes the outcome difficult to predict, Frelimo has a formidable election machine.
Opposition parties and observers suspect the country’s electoral commission might have artificially inflated numbers in some areas where Frelimo is in the majority. In Gaza province, for instance, almost 300,000 more people registered to vote than the voting-age population there in the 2017 census. (The commission has stood by its figures.)
Temperatures were raised further with the alleged assassination of a local observer in Gaza eight days before polling day.
Frelimo also gets supporters to the polls on election day. "They knock on your door and if you don’t have ink on your finger [to show you voted] they take you to the polling station," says Joseph Hanlon, editor of an elections newsletter in Mozambique and senior lecturer in development policy and practice at the UK’s Open University.
Journalists have reported a tightly controlled media space. Government has limited elections coverage by local-language radio stations, on which three-quarters of people depend for information, says investigative journalist Estacio Valoi.
Many voters have complained that the campaigns are devoid of substance and big on show, especially among the chattering urban folk on social media, where the waistlines of Frelimo leaders’ children have been unfavourably and meticulously compared with those of Dhlakama’s relatives.
Valoi believes Frelimo will have to put on a good show to stay on top. "This election is already hot, and it’s going to [become] more hot," he says. "Control of money and resources is something big."