When Mozambique heads to the polls on 15 October, there will be much at stake. President Filipe Nyusi is likely to be re-elected for a second term, but opposition parties will be looking to do well in races for governorships and parliamentary seats. For the first time, parties will appoint governors for the provinces in which they get the most votes.
The ruling party Frelimo starts with a big advantage. In power since Mozambique gained independence in 1975, it not only controls the electoral machine but dictates the rules of the game. The campaign has already been marred by worrying levels of violence, which could escalate closer to election day. Parties such as the main opposition Renamo and its offshoot the Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM) have reasons to be concerned over the electoral process.
Nyusi's unenviable inheritance
Among other things, Mozambique's election will be a barometer of President Nyusi's popularity after nearly five years in office. The former Defence Minister was relatively unknown when he became Frelimo's presidential candidate in 2014. Various other figures vying for the nomination had higher profiles, but outgoing President Armando Guebuza exerted his influence to ensure Nyusi emerged narrowly as his successor.
As expected, the Frelimo candidate went on to win the 2014 presidential election, garnering 57% to Renamo's then leader Afonso Dhlakama's 36.6%. But confidence was relatively low in Nyusi's ability to tackle Mozambique's worsening economic and security challenges once in office.
Following the above 7% growth rate in Guebuza's first term, from 2005-2010, the economy had stagnated during his second. The effects of the global recession had begun to hit Mozambique. Big investments in mega projects failed to reduce poverty. And inflation soared along with the cost of living. The economic crisis and a rise in crime prompted the urban poor and middle-classes to protest.
At the same time, an armed conflict with Renamo, a former rebel group, intensified. The dispute had started as a minor skirmish over alleged electoral fraud in 2010. By 2013, the rising insecurity had paralysed the country's central region.
Nyusi inherited these problems from Guebuza when he came to office. But he also had to contend with a divided party, which had nearly split into two around the contentious nomination process. This was new ground for Frelimo.
Under Guebuza, the party had been ruled with a heavy hand with little room for dissenting voices. The former president's 2009 re-election landslide, in which he won over 75%, had emboldened him in silencing his critics.
This was true both within his party and in terms of the opposition. In Guebuza's second term, some opposition activists were found dead in unexplained circumstances and the local media talked of death squads linked to the secret services and police. As the dispute with Renamo ramped up and the economy stalled, there were also two failed attempts at Dhlakama's life. This had the effect of revitalising the Renamo leader's popularity and turning him into a quasi-messianic figure. Despite hiding in the bushes of central Mozambique and hardly making any public appearances for months, Dhlakama emerged in the early-2010s as the only political figure capable of going head to head with Frelimo.
The opposition, however, never had a coherent set of demands. They went from accusations of electoral fraud, to calling for new voting legislation, to demanding a share of power, to campaigning for decentralisation. It took several years of instability and bloodshed before Renamo and the government reached a peace agreement in September 2014, the month before elections.
Nyusi's inaugural speech in January 2015 was perhaps Mozambique's most anticipated since Samora Machel's independence declaration in 1975. Although Frelimo's vote share had fallen sharply since the previous elections as Renamo's more than doubled, many in Mozambique had hope in Nyusi and believed he would lead the country into a more democratic era.
It seemed as if the days of the hard-line Guebuza, who was deeply unpopular by the time he left office, were over. Despite resistance from some in his party, Nyusi, who had campaigned on a message of peace, engaged in dialogue with Dhlakama in order to reach a negotiated settlement.
For a time, the new president looked to be off to a good start. But then came the revelations that shocked the country and ended the positive mood. It emerged that under Guebuza, state-owned companies had secretly contracted $2 billion of debt for dubious projects. The scheme not only violated the constitution, which requires loans of that magnitude to be approved by parliament, but agreements with the IMF and other international partners.
Nyusi's poor handling of the scandal quickly eroded his credibility. To begin with, his government denied the existence of the loans. It only acknowledged wrongdoing after the IMF - which had lauded Mozambique as the best example of structural adjustment for two decades - cut its financial support and instructed other donors to do so too. The IMF said it would only re-engage once an audit was complete and criminal charges had been brought to those responsible.
The IMF and international donors had previously contributed more than 40% of Mozambique's annual budget. The removal of this support left the government in a dire situation. Inflation skyrocketed with the exchange rate going from 1 US dollar to 30 Meticais in 2015 to 60 Meticais in mid-2016. The economy went into recession.
Nyusi was caught between protecting Guebuza's administration, of which he had been a part, and satisfying the IMF. He reluctantly instructed the attorney general to begin investigations. This process took more than two years to complete. It revealed damning evidence of financial crimes but promoted no real measures to prosecute the culprits.
This scandal has continued to dog Nyusi in the run-up to the elections. In December 2018, Guebuza's former finance minister Manuel Chang was detained in Johannesburg on his way to Dubai. His arrest, carried out by Interpol, was ordered by the United States Justice Department for alleged financial crimes and money laundering related to the secret loans.
This forced Mozambique into action. In order to avoid Chang's extradition to the US where he might implicate Guebuza and possibly even Nyusi, the attorney general endeavoured to show it could prosecute its own crimes. In a theatrical show of force, over twenty people implicated in the loans scheme were arrested. All those detained were close to Guebuza and included his son, personal secretary, advisers, and top officials in the intelligence services. The former president himself remains untouched despite evidence of his involvement.
A weakened opposition
As the election has approached, Nyusi is likely pleased that the process has continued to move slowly. However, he has also benefited from a divided opposition.
In May 2018, Dhlakama died suddenly of a heart attack. If he were still alive, he might have been a serious alternative in this year's election with Frelimo's credibility and moral capital at an all-time low. Instead, his death left Renamo without a clear leader.
Dhlakama, a charismatic but undemocratic principal, left behind no viable heir. Moreover, his inability to build coalitions with other opposition parties - especially in talks regarding electoral reform and decentralisation - has weakened Renamo's prospects in these elections.
His successor Ossufo Momade's priority seems to be managing Renamo's negotiations with Frelimo rather than challenging them in the polls. A small group of party soldiers have rejected his leadership and are trying to derail the elections. Renamo also looks set to lose some crucial votes due to Islamist militancy in Cabo Delgado province, which has made campaigning there impossible.
Judging from the campaign, Frelimo will be relieved to make it through another set of elections still in power, while the opposition will may be content with winning a few provincial governorships and increasing its representation in parliament.