MAPUTO, Mozambique (AP) — Mozambique's elections on Tuesday are almost certain to be won by the ruling Frelimo party and President Filipe Nyusi but it is unclear if the results will bring badly needed stability and economic growth.
The southern African nation of nearly 30 million people has a strategic location on the Indian Ocean and substantial deposits of natural gas. Pummeled by a pair of cyclones earlier this year, it also faces sporadic violence by opposition rebels and a growing threat from suspected Islamic extremists in the far north.
Frelimo has never lost a national election since 1975 when it overthrew Portuguese colonial rule, and its leaders have never stayed in power beyond the maximum two terms.
Although the main opposition Renamo party is unlikely to win the national elections, its new leader Ossufo Momade has been unexpectedly effective.
Momade "has been a big, big surprise on the campaign," said Fernando Lima, journalist and head of independent media house Mediacoop. "He speaks in very straightforward language — very populistic — and he benefits from Renamo's popularity, particularly in the countryside."
Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at British think tank Chatham House, agreed.
"Momade's magic is that he is drawing a large following in Nampula and Zambezia provinces," said Vines, who is part of the Commonwealth election observer mission.
Renamo is doing well enough to worry Frelimo, said Vines, particularly after last year's municipal elections saw an increase in turnout but a decline in the Frelimo vote.
"That is an indicator for a worse performance in the national elections," Vines said. "Frelimo knows this and has less resources to splash this time, and this is why this looks to be an ill-tempered and nasty election."
There have been killings, notably of Anastacio Matavel, who led a consortium of local election observers in Gaza province, a Frelimo stronghold where a suspiciously high number of voters were registered. Police have acknowledged that four of the attackers were members of the police's own elite rapid reaction force.
The opposition has complained of being prevented from campaigning by Frelimo, with roads blocked in the country's largest city, Matola, and the municipal square booked for the whole campaign period in the ruby mining town of Montepuez in northern Cabo Delgado province.
Nyusi's first term has been dominated by an economic crisis caused by a $2 billion corruption scandal. Companies set up by the country's secret services and the defense ministry borrowed $2 billion in secret, with the help of then-finance minister Manuel Chang, to set up maritime projects that never materialized but allegedly enriched a range of local and foreign players. Chang is currently jailed in South Africa resisting extradition to face trial in New York in connection with the scandal.
Mozambique is now trying to legally disavow part of the debt and restructure another part, which the country will be repaying for years to come. The debts have triggered economic problems felt by ordinary voters.
The deals were cooked up before Nyusi became president but while he was defense minister, and questions about his involvement have never gone away.
"Frelimo will be tested electorally as never before," Vines said. "An angry electorate frustrated at widespread delivery failings and the undisclosed loans scandal have resulted in significant numbers of voters wanting change."
Nyusi's supporters point to his success in signing a peace deal with Renamo earlier this year, but the longed-for "definitive peace" still seems elusive. A group of Renamo rebels who reject Momade's leadership threaten violence in Mozambique's central region, and there have been a number of attacks believed to be by the self-styled Renamo Military Junta, although it has not claimed responsibility.
Nyusi also can claim credit for the $25 billion Mozambique Liquid Natural Gas project controlled by France's Total. But a bloody insurgency in Cabo Delgado, where the gas is located, overshadows any optimism and has contributed to a delay in a final decision on a nearby larger gas project by ExxonMobil.
In recent days, the government has stepped up its offensive against the insurgents, who began attacking Cabo Delgado coastal communities in October 2017. Little is known about the rebels, who are blamed for killing more than 400 civilians and military, including many beheadings. Recently the Islamic State group has claimed alignment with the rebels.
These elections will see provincial governors elected for the first time, a key Renamo demand which will allow the opposition to administer provinces where it wins a majority. Previously all governors were appointed by the ruling party.
However, Frelimo has established a new management layer, a provincial secretary of state, which will be appointed by the president and take on many of the powers that governors have had up to now.
Renamo's Momade is expected to become governor of Nampula province, his home province and the country's most populous, but it is harder to predict the outcome in neighboring Zambezia province, the second-most populous and another opposition stronghold.
"Frelimo seem to be working hard in Zambezia, but in private their strategists are pessimistic about Nampula and Zambezia," Lima said. "Clearly the Renamo campaign is much more vibrant in Zambezia than Frelimo."
In its traditional heartlands in Mozambique's center, however, Renamo could find the going tougher. "Splits in Renamo may punish the party in Manica and Sofala provinces, and I worry that Renamo is saying that it will win impressively across the country, and that's unlikely," Vines said.
Electoral results far below the expectations of opposition supporters could create a volatile post-election atmosphere but Lima said the solution is largely in the hands of the ruling party.
"In the environment that we have, with the problems in Cabo Delgado and in central Mozambique, and the strong sense of suspicion within Renamo, if Frelimo plays all the fraud tricks it has done in the past this will be a very poisonous recipe for trouble," Lima said. "So Frelimo should try to play clean, by the book."
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