Mozambique: This election changes everything

Mozambique: This election changes everything

It is almost irrelevant who wins Mozambique’s elections on Tuesday – whatever happens, change is coming. Yes, the parties may disagree on exactly who gets to occupy the president’s Palácio da Ponta Vermelha, but the electoral race masks a more fundamental shift. No longer can anyone in Mozambique take power for granted. By SIMON ALLISON.

Like a drug dealer dishing out a free fix, the battered Nissan Sunny parked in a shady corner of the park attracted a steady stream of people from all walks of life: students, security guards, street vendors, smartly-dressed professionals and even the odd homeless person. They all approached empty handed, and left clutching packages that The Chief – that’s how he introduced himself, at least – was distributing from the boot of his car.

It didn’t take long to figure out that it wasn’t actual narcotics being distributed in public, here in the shadow of the shiny new foreign ministry building (Chinese-built, of course) in Maputo’s bustling government district. It was t-shirts: bright red numbers with the face of Filipe Nyusi, the ruling party’s candidate for president in Wednesday’s election, printed larger-than-life size and in unforgivingly high resolution on the front.

If you have spent any time in Mozambique over the last couple of months, then his is a face you don’t forget easily. Not that it is particularly distinctive, or even flattering: the official portrait was taken from below, which only emphasises Nyusi’s fleshy jowls and gives him a vaguely decadent, venal air – unfortunate adjectives to attach to any presidential candidate, but particularly so in Mozambique when the gap between rich and poor is already so large and so obvious.

Nonetheless, his face – along with Frelimo’s distinctive red and green logo – is just everywhere. On those ubiquitous t-shirts, and billboards; on shopping bags and car bonnets; and on every inch of unoccupied wall space. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that there was no one else in this race except Nyusi and Frelimo.

That’s certainly what The Chief thinks. “This is our man,” he said, proudly wearing his own merchandise. “Those others, they are small boys. We are not worried.”

The Chief, however, is wrong. No party other than Frelimo has ever ruled an independent Mozambique, and none has even come close before. But this time is different. Frelimo are worried, and the opposition are coming of age. An upset may not be likely, but it is certainly on the cards – hence the massive and enormously expensive PR campaign, planned for the most part by the same Brazilian firm that masterminded elections wins for Dilma Roussef and Lula.

The obvious threat comes from the old enemy, Renamo. It’s all too easy to dismiss Renamo as a spent force, as a bunch of suited rebels angling for a few more big pay days, and the events of the last couple of years lend themselves to this interpretation. By pulling out of the political process and returning to his remote bush hideout, Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama seemed to be trying to relive his civil war glory days when he was powerful and his party was relevant (even if its funding then did come from Apartheid South Africa). And he got what he wanted: important concessions from the government that gave Renamo members more representation and, allegedly, more access to economic opportunities.

This analysis ignores one inconvenient truth, however, which is Dhlakama’s sheer popularity. He has been mobbed wherever he has campaigned since emerging from the bush last month, drawing huge, adoring crowds that aren’t just there for the free t-shirt and pop concert (key crowd-pullers at Frelimo rallies). And he is saying all the right things too, pushing a message of reform and reconciliation, and pledging to separate state and party interests. He even promised Frelimo members that there would be space for them in his government. Somehow, Dhlakama has turned himself from a rebel into a visionary, and his lofty rhetoric is showing up the ruling party’s petty sniping.

Then there’s the Movimento Democrático de Moçambique (MDM), the new kids on the opposition bloc. It already runs the local governments of three out of four of the country’s biggest cities, and is enormously popular in Maputo too. Its message of clean, efficient governance aimed at bridging that wealth gap has resonated among urban youth in particular, and this core constituency will only get bigger with every new election. Unlike Renamo’s Dhlakama, MDM leader Daviz Simango has a long and well-respected track record in government as mayor of Beira (at first under on a Renamo ticket, incidentally), so has the experience to back up his criticisms of the current administration.

Between the two of them, Renamo and MDM have the potential to chip away at Frelimo’s majority. Frelimo, remember, is desperately hoping to avoid dipping under 50% in the first round of voting, because that would force a run-off election that would force the opposition to unite behind a single candidate. Although notoriously unreliable, some opinion polls here have suggested that this is a viable outcome.

But even if Frelimo wins the presidential election outright, it will still find itself leading a very different kind of government. Also on Wednesday are elections for Mozambique’s parliament, the Assembly of the Republic, and both Renamo and MDM are likely to significantly increase their representation. This means that Frelimo will face real legislative opposition for the first time in its decades-long rule. Hopefully, this will force compromise and greater accountability, and ensure that new laws benefit the country as a whole.

Whatever happens, it is abundantly clear that Frelimo can no longer run Mozambique as a de facto one-party state – and no amount of free t-shirts is going to change this fact. Not that Nyusi and co. can be written off just yet. Like it or not, the country’s immediate future is still in the ruling party’s hands, and will be determined by how gracefully it adjusts to its new reality. DM

Read more:

  • Meet the next president of Mozambique: Filipe Nyussi on Daily Maverick

  • Mozambique: The little opposition party that could on Daily Maverick

Photo: The Frelimo party candidate for the presidential elections, Filipe Nyusi (C) delivers his speech during a rally on the last day of campaigning in Maputo, Mozambique, 12 October 2014. EPA/ANTONIO SILVA


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