On 25 October, over 20 million people will go to the polls in Tanzania. And for the first time since independence in 1961, and the return to multi-party elections in 1992, there is a realistic chance that the ruling party will be unseated. The reason is that a leading politician from the ruling CCM party, Edward Lowassa, has switched sides and joined the opposition party CHADEMA. Furious at being left off the list of candidates to run on the ruling party’s ticket, Lowassa deserted his party and was welcomed with open arms by an opposition that finally scents the possibility of election success with Lowassa as its presidential candidate. He is now standing as the candidate for the opposition coalition UKAWA, which unites CHADEMA with three other opposition parties.
At first sight, this might look like the birth of full-blown political opposition in a country with little previous experience of it. While Tanzania’s northern neighbour, Kenya, has seen vigorous and at times violent party politics throughout its post-colonial history, competitive party politics has in contrast largely been absent from post-colonial Tanzania – on the mainland at least.
The dominance enjoyed by the nationalist party which led mainland Tanzania to independence from Britain in 1961 was swiftly institutionalized by the banning of alternative parties. Over the decades which followed Tanzania appeared calm and united under CCM – the party led by its charismatic long-serving founding father and first President, Julius Nyerere. Nyerere stepped down from the Presidency in 1985 and alternative parties were legalized in 1991. But even after the return of multi-party politics, and despite growing criticism of the ruling party, CCM dominance on the mainland has rarely appeared to be at risk.
However, the absence of institutionalised opposition politics does not mean that Tanzania has altogether lacked a culture of political opposition or political debate. Recent research has reminded us of the vigorous culture of political argument and engagement from below which existed during Tanzania’s long period of single-party rule. These debates simply took place within the confines set by the ruling party rather than between parties.
In the 1960s, elections offered an opportunity for two rival candidates, both members of the ruling party, to present their visions of the future to their electorate. While candidates might not disagree on policy, they used the tools at their disposal to distinguish themselves from their rivals. Even the symbols which served to represent candidates on the ballot paper, a hoe for one candidate, a house for the other, were turned to this end. Officially, the symbols were only symbols, designed to help an electorate of restricted literacy. As one candidate explained in his election meeting in 1965:
Those signs which have been placed in the election, they were simply put there in order to identify the candidates and in order to help those voters who are unable to read. But these signs have no other meaning. Those who are trying to translate the meaning of these signs, they are mistaken.
He called on his listeners to vote for the person, not the sign, and to elect the person best able to represent them. But it was clear that both candidates and voters were using the symbols as a way of opening up debate.
In 1965, John Rupia, a candidate for the town of Shinyangain and veteran of the independence movement, played on the house symbol, saying it symbolised the advent of a new housing scheme which would be good for town dwellers. But in the countryside the house symbol went down badly. A cattle census had apparently been undertaken that year, and it was rumoured that people would have to sell their cattle to pay for tin roofs for ‘modern’ houses in a post-colonial variant of colonial-era practices of “destocking” (compulsory reduction in cattle numbers).
So, even the formally meaningless election symbols thus provided a space for reflection on wider issues. Was the new Tanzanian government continuing unpopular colonial practices? Destocking had been one of the major motivators of anti-colonial activity in 1950s Sukumaland. Was it right for local officials to insist that citizens build ‘modern’ houses, at great expense? Was this the sort of modernity which town and country dwellers wanted?
Once elected, the Tanzanian parliament provided a space in which MPs could oppose party policies with which they disagreed. Outside parliament, in the letters pages of the Swahili press, Tanzanian citizens embraced the ruling party’s vision of ujamaa or African socialism, but nevertheless debated how it should be applied in practice.
Seen in this light, the prospect of an opposition triumph at the polls is less dramatic than conventional understandings of Tanzania’s history might suggest. The 2015 elections may mark the birth of a new kind of electoral contest, but they certainly do not mark the birth of oppositional politics where none had existed previously. Reading Tanzania’s political present in the light of its history reminds us that popular participation in politics, and the practice of holding rulers to account, takes many forms, of which democratic multi-partyism is only one.
Image: Current composition of the Tanzanian National Assembly [Wikicommons]
Emma Hunter is Lecturer in African History at the University of Edinburgh. Her recent publications include Political Thought and the Public Sphere in Tanzania: Freedom, Democracy and Citizenship in the Era of Decolonization. You can find her on Twitter @Emma_Edin.
 No author, ‘Kilio na Kihiyo Watoana Jasho’, Uhuru, 11 September 1965, p. 2.
 Ganja Geneya, ‘Sukumaland: Traditional Values and Modern Leadership’, in Lionel Cliffe, ed., One Party Democracy: The 1965 Tanzania General Elections, Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1967, pp. 186-207, p. 199.