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Mozambique’s sixth general election: a post-mortem

On 28 October 2019, Mozambique’s National Electoral Commission (CNE) confirmed the victory of the ruling Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) and the incumbent Filipe Jacinto Nyusi in the 15 October general elections. According to the CNE results, which must and certainly will be confirmed by the country’s Constitutional Court very soon, Nyusi obtained an impressive 73 percent of the vote. Ossufo Momade, the candidate of the country’s main opposition party, Resistência Nacional de Moçambique (RENAMO), came second with 21.88 percent. Daviz Simango from the Movimento Democrático de Moçambique (MDM) came third with 4.38 percent. The Nampula province-based, first-time presidential candidate from Acção de Movimento Unido para Salvação Integral (AMUSI), Mário Albino, received only 0.73 percent. The parliamentary and provincial assemblies’ votes also indicated an impressive victory for the ruling FRELIMO—even in areas traditionally hostile to the ruling party.

In terms of parliamentary representation, the results give FRELIMO 184 seats (73.6 percent), 40 more than in the 2014 elections. The main opposition party, RENAMO, saw its parliamentary representation reduced to 60 seats (34 percent) from its current 89. MDM was left with only six MPs (2.4 percent) from the 17 seats they won in 2014. The ruling party also obtained the majority in all 10 provincial assemblies, which are to elect provincial governors for the first time as a product of the most recent peace agreement signed between the government and RENAMO. Constituencies outside Mozambique, across Africa and the rest of the world, were also all captured by FRELIMO.

Fredson G. Guilengue is a Senior Project Manager at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Southern Africa Office in Johannesburg, South Africa. He has published extensively on Mozambican politics, from working papers to opinion articles in both English and Portuguese. His work also extends to areas such as land, agrarian issues, and climate change.

In the 2014 provincial elections, RENAMO won a majority in the provincial assemblies of Sofala, Tete, and Zambézia, but could not appoint governors as the existing legal framework did not yet allow for the election of provincial governors. The results of the 2019 election have been highly controverial and were immediately rejected by the opposition parties. On 29 October 2019, RENAMO filed a case in the Constitutional Court demanding annulment of the results and a rerun of the elections.  Only half of Mozambique’s nearly 13 million registered voters managed to cast votes. The official reasons for this low turnout are not yet known, but intimidation, distrust in the process due to previous experiences, and a very tense political environment likely played a role.

While one must admit that the ruling FRELIMO would have won the elections in any case, the numbers the process has produced are very questionable. How could a highly contested political and socio-economic atmosphere have produced such an overwhelming victory for the ruling FRELIMO? Have Mozambicans rejected the outcome of (an elite-brokered) peace? Are the people rejecting political stability by deepening the decentralisation process in the country? Did the passing of RENAMO’s historic leader Afonso Dhlakama leave a significant amount of the population with no credible political alternative to the ruling FRELIMO? Or have “invisible hands” perhaps played a role in Mozambique’s sixth general and third provincial election?

Context, Competition, and Competitors

Mozambique entered these elections while mired in a serious political, financial, and economic crisis. The results of the 2018 local elections had already clearly indicated popular dissatisfaction with the ruling FRELIMO due to this state of affairs. With very high levels of contestation, out of the country’s 52 local municipalities the ruling party won 44, RENAMO seven, and MDM one. To some extent these results expressed an ongoing trend that began in the 2013 local elections, which were boycotted by RENAMO but in which MDM won in Beira, Nampula, and Quelimane. Like in any electoral processes in Mozambique, FRELIMO’s victory was overshadowed by numerous accusations of irregularities and vote rigging. In 2018, not only was the difference between the number of votes insignificant, but in terms of relevant municipalities FRELIMO only managed to secure the capital city of Maputo, while strategic municipalities like the cities of Beira (second-most relevant), Nampula (third-largest), and Quelimane all remained in the hands of MDM (Beira) and RENAMO.

The city of Matola, Mozambique’s industrial hub, almost fell into the hands of RENAMO. Saved by the vote of only one opposition MP, losing Matola would irrefutably have been a serious embarrassment to FRELIMO. Matola was set to be the first municipality in southern Mozambique, known as FRELIMO’s stronghold, to not only fall under the control of an opposition party, but more importantly into the hands of FRELIMO’s arch-rival, RENAMO. A clear popular signal was sent that eminent disaster loomed for the ruling FRELIMO if nothing was done before the 15 October general elections.

Exacerbating the external dynamics was something highly uncommon taking place within FRELIMO itself, that also risked sending a negative message to the outside. It prompted the party to send a powerful message both internally and externally. Due to its own historical experience of dissidence during its time as a liberation movement, FRELIMO’s biggest fear is a rift in its internal cohesion. This time, the rift was set to happen ahead of the party’s two most-feared electoral competitions. Just before last year’s local elections, Samora Machel Junior, the son of FRELIMO’s most iconic historical figure, Samora Machel, attempted to stand for mayor of Maputo City after being excluded from the internal vote in a way many regarded as unfair. He was supported by a civil society organization (AJUDEM) said to be linked to and comprised of FRELIMO members.

Samora Junior is not any normal party member. He is also a member of the party’s highest structure in the interval between congresses (Central Committee) and the stepson of Graça Machel, Nelson Mandela’s widow. In a similarly uncommon move, Graça Machel expressed public support for her son’s mayoral ambitions. Fearing retaliation, FRELIMO’s control over the state machinery and the economy makes it quite unusual for members (including most public servants) to behave in such a way. Although Machel Júnior’s ambitions ended up not materializing because AJUDEM was “legally” blocked from running, a strong signal of internal dissatisfaction and potential division was sent.  

But it was the fallout from the so-called “hidden loans” case totalling roughly $2 billion, revealed in early 2016, that damaged FRELIMO’s reputation the most—along with a number of other corruption cases involving party cadres disclosed almost every week. With the arrest of the former finance Minister Manuel Chang in South Africa last year in response to an extradition request by the US and revelations exposed by the American indictment, Mozambicans confirmed that literally all of the individuals implicated in the biggest corruption scandal in their country’s history were FRELIMO members.  These people have always enjoyed the protection of the party and the state, explaining why these (and most other) high-level corruption cases were not properly investigated domestically. The economic consequences of this case were significant. From a consistent GPD growth rate of 7.4 percent in 1994, growth fell to just 3.3 percent by 2018. Since 2016, the country’s public debt has been unsustainable, standing at 112 percent of GDP in 2018. Inflation indicators deteriorated rapidly, food prices doubled, and bank interest rates increased significantly, affecting investment and consumption. Investment rates and imports fell by 4.7 percent, and the government responded with austerity measures. It stopped subsidizing bread and announced its intention to do the same with fuel. Hospitals began to run short of medicines. A growing number of small and medium enterprises closed and sent their employees home. Fearing urban uprisings, all planned public demonstrations, civil-society and opposition-party mobilizations against corruption and the economic crisis were met with a very heavy police presence and brutality. At one point, no public mobilizations against the corrupt debt case in the country were allowed.  

Yet FRELIMO was not the only one in turmoil. Its major competitors were also facing serious internal crises, which may or may not have had significant implications for the election results. RENAMO’s success in the negotiations with FRELIMO, which pushed the ruling party into accepting RENAMO’s demand to introduce elections of provincial governors, was met with enormous anxiety and uncertainty regarding their political future and relevance. The same applied to some of the most popular MDM cadres and other prominent party members. Fearing that RENAMO would be the biggest winner in the 2018 and 2019 elections, MDM stalwarts like Manuel de Araújo, Venâncio Mondlane, Geraldo Carvalho, and many others at almost all levels accused Daviz Simango of autocracy and oligarchy and immediately joined RENAMO.

RENAMO also faced defections, albeit only in its military wing. A splinter guerrilla group known as RENAMO’s military junta, led by General Mariano Nhongo, rejected the leadership of Dhlakama’s successor Ossufo Momade and the content of the recent peace agreement signed with the government of Mozambique on 6 August 2019. They threatened to disrupt the elections and called for their postponement. This junta, which had publicly rejected Momade’s leadership, appealed to Mozambicans not to vote for RENAMO and Momade less than 24 hours before voting began.   

Meanwhile, FRELIMO lived up to its slogan of “Victory Is Prepared, Victory Is Organized”. Ahead of the 2019 elections, the party engaged in serious preparations both internally and externally. Internally, it made sure it eliminated any threat to its cohesion and invested heavily in propaganda materials. FRELIMO’s colours could be seen literally everywhere, with Nyusi being the only candidate who managed to erect large billboards on which he is seen grinning broadly at passers-by.

Externally, it embarked on numerous actions discrediting the outcomes of these elections. Using its full control over the state apparatus, it was accused of manipulating the voter registration process in opposition-dominated areas, where strange malfunctions of voter registration machines were reported. Allegedly, state allocation of human and material resources for the voter registration process had given priority to FRELIMO strongholds to the detriment of areas where the opposition traditionally enjoys majority support, like Nampula, Tete, and Zambézia. Three months before the elections, a major scandal emerged when the country’s bodies responsible for running the electoral process announced having registered 329,000 voters in Gaza province, exceeding the projections of the National Institute of Statistics (INE) of people of the age required to vote. The number of elected MPs is determined on the basis of the number of registered voters. With this fabricated number of registered voters, it was said that the ruling party expected to guarantee 14 more parliamentary seats in an area very hostile to the opposition and which has always delivered victory to FRELIMO.

The Pope’s “Blessing” and Other Disincentives to a Fair Competition

The electoral campaign for the 15 October 2019 general election began on 31 August and ended three days before voting on 12 October. However, at the peak of the campaign two important events took place. Between 4–6 September 2019, Pope Francis visited Mozambique. On 8 October, the Mozambican government and the Mozambique Rovuma Venture (MRV) consortium announced the much-awaited final investment decision for Cabo Delgado province’s Rovuma Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project in Maputo. Due to their social and economic relevance, these two events may have contributed significantly to promoting the incumbent Nyusi and his party’s image.

Although Pope Francis was very critical of corrupt elites and sought to distance himself from the electoral campaign as much as he could, organizing and hosting a Papal visit attended by thousands during an election season may have helped further boost Nyusi and his party, especially considering the 7.6 million Catholics in the country (27.2 percent). In a meeting with the Mozambican youth on 5 September attended by thousands of young women and men, the Pope—attempting to name positive examples to be followed by the country’s youth without mentioning personalities linked to political parties—named the late Mozambican-born footballer Eusébio da Silva Ferreira (1942–2014) and the retired 800-meter Olympic champion Maria de Ludes Mutola.

Four days after the Pope’s gathering, Mutola appeared at a rally side-by-side with the incumbent Nyusi, asking for votes for him and FRELIMO. One could speculate that some Catholic voters may have felt indebted to the ruling party for giving them the rare and extraordinary opportunity to see the Pope on their own soil. Economically, Nyusi’s and FRELIMO’s image must have certainly benefited from the historical announcement by the gas consortium led by American giant Anadarko of a 22 billion euro investment in its project in Mozambique. For a people and an economy desperate for foreign investment, the magnitude of this sum and the words of IMF representative Ari Aisen that Mozambique would finally see many of its economic problems resolved with this investment certainly resonated well with the voters.

From Prawn Lovers to Political Tourists

In 2014, Alice Mabota, then the President of the Mozambican Human Rights League, vehemently criticized international electoral observers who, despite numerous irregularities, declared the elections generally free, fair, and transparent. Mabota remarked at the time: “We had told them not to come here to just stay in the hotels eating prawns.” She was referring to the preliminary evaluation reports by a group of international electoral observers (EU, SADC, Carter Center, the Commonwealth, etc.). Five years later, a similar remark was made by the Mozambican analyst and journalist Fernando Lima. He criticised the position of the SADC, African Union (AU), and Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP) observer missions for labelling the elections transparent and in line with international standards. He classified their observation as “political tourism”, contrary to others like the EU, US, and the Electoral Institute for Southern Africa (EISA) which had reflected real events on the ground. Local observers also disagreed with each other, with most concluding that there was widespread electoral fraud.

In the eyes of a number of independent observers, NGOs, analysts, and scholars, the 25 October elections suffered from numerous irregularities. They cited numerous problems, such as the coverage of the election campaign by the deeply biased public (and private) press; late disbursement of campaign funds to the detriment of opposition parties with little or no resources for political work; reports of FRELIMO’s use of state human and material resources for electoral purposes; voter intimidation by the military and the police mainly in opposition-friendly zones; intimidation of agents, members, and supporters of opposition parties; murder of individuals insisting on transparency in the voting process (Anastacio Matavel, a leader of an observers’ platform in the province of Gaza, was shot dead by an elite unit of the police five days before election day); ballot-box stuffing; falsification of voting notices; registration and voting by “ghost voters”; limitation and/or non-accreditation of independent election observers mainly in opposition-friendly zones (more than 3,000 independent observers are said not to have been given the necessary accreditation to observe); and much more.   

“Who observes the observers?” is probably the most relevant question to ask when one looks at the reports, findings, and recommendations issued by various national and international missions observing elections in Mozambique. How to ensure that electoral observers are “free, fair, and transparent”, as they are expected to be, is a crucial question. How to ensure that electoral observers’ reports reflect real events on the ground and ultimately contribute to transparent political processes, not only in Mozambique but everywhere? How to ensure that relevant recommendations from electoral observers are taken seriously and taken into account by targeted countries?

Apart from demonstrating the need for a mechanism to supervise the work of electoral observers, the Mozambican experience also calls for harmonizing different observation findings into one single report in order to facilitate adoption and monitoring of relevant recommendations by respective governments and stakeholders. The current practice fails to prevent states from continuing to commit the same irregularities after recommendations have been made. 

What Now?

It is undeniably quite surprising that the current political and socioeconomic context in Mozambique resulted in such a severe popular defeat for the opposition parties and an overwhelming victory by the ruling FRELIMO, as occurred on 15 October. Mozambique has a long history of military conflict and political instability. Apart from an economy in crisis mostly due to corruption, it is also faced with two armed conflicts. In the northern part of the country, Mozambique is confronted with a brutal insurgency whose motivation and actors are not publicly known. The central part of the country faces guerrilla attacks by a splinter group from RENAMO that contests its current leadership and demands to be heard by the government. The government has exhibited a deeply limited capacity to adequately resolve both conflicts.  

The results of the recent elections may add further complications to an already grim picture. By giving the ruling FRELIMO a highly contested absolute majority both at the national and provincial level, the elections blocked much-needed access to power and subsequent economic benefits to other political actors in Mozambique, particularly RENAMO and its supporters, which remains the principal cause of political and military conflicts in Mozambique. The results of these elections place a considerable number of opposition cadres outside of state office, and thus at risk of the very political and economic marginalization that the peace agreement was expected to solve.

As responses from participating political parties have shown so far, while expected to alleviate political and social tensions, the election results have instead accomplished quite the opposite. In political terms, the results represent a complete rejection of the recently signed (elite) peace agreement, as it was believed that by deepening the country’s decentralization it could ultimately widen the possibilities for other political actors like RENAMO to access power at least at the provincial level, and thereby bring relative stability to Mozambique.

Given how fragmented RENAMO is at present with a contested leadership, it is unlikely that it will revert to armed struggle in order to contest the results of these elections. The Mozambican opposition has literally no other option but to accept them.  But as in most other cases, including previous experiences in Mozambique itself, the magnitude of FRELIMO’s victory will leave little political space for the opposition and civil society, which will further threaten democracy.