By Staff Reporter
After months of campaigning across Mozambique, Filipe Nyusi, the presidential candidate of the ruling Frelimo party, wrapped up his final election rally by likening his strategy to driving a car.
Addressing crowds of supporters in red T-shirts on Sunday, he promised that if elected he would “change gear” to accelerate development. “We want a better life for all Mozambicans,” he said.
The analogy was part of a multi-pronged message Mr Nyusi has employed as he seeks to woo voters ahead of Wednesday’s elections, seen as the country’s most fiercely contested in more than a decade.
Mr Nyusi, a former defence minister, has repeated promises of more schools, hospitals and jobs, as one of the world’s poorest countries hopes to start reaping the benefits of massive offshore gas discoveries over the next decade. But as the candidate of the former liberation movement that has ruled Mozambique since independence in 1975, he has also cited the benefits of continuity.
Six months ago many commentators were predicting that as Frelimo’s choice to succeed Armando Guebuza, who is stepping down after completing two terms as president, Mr Nyusi was a virtual shoo-in. But as Mozambicans cast ballots in the parliamentary and presidential polls, the outcome now appears less certain. Frelimo remains the favourite, but there are suggestions Mr Nyusi may fail to garner the 50 per cent or more votes needed to avoid a run-off.
The uncertainty has arisen as Mozambique attracts unprecedented investor attention. Gas discoveries by the US’s Anadarko and Italy’s ENI are expected to attract more than $50bn in investment and transform the country into one of the world’s top liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporters. The poll victor will have to steer the former Portuguese colony as billions of dollars are deployed to build the LNG infrastructure, with production expected to begin around 2020.
The change in political sentiment is traced to early September when Afonso Dhlakama, the veteran leader of Renamo, the former rebel group, left his bush hide-out in central Mozambique to formalise a peace deal with the government after two years of clashes between Renamo fighters and security forces.
For years, Renamo, and Mr Dhlakama, who has lost four previous elections, were being characterised as a dwindling force. Renamo ran Frelimo close in a 1999 election but foundered at the 2009 poll, with Frelimo winning 75 per cent of the vote.
There were suggestions that an upstart party, the Democratic Movement of Mozambique (MDM) – formed by a Renamo breakaway ahead of the 2009 poll – could overtake Renamo to become the main opposition. Daviz Simango, MDM’s leader, is the third presidential candidate and enjoys support among young, urban voters.
Yet in the weeks since Mr Dhlakama returned from the bush, he has drawn surprisingly large crowds. He preaches a message of more equitable development while tapping into concerns about corruption and accusing Frelimo of serving a politically connected elite.
“It’s astonishing, the campaign of Dhlakama . . . There’s a possibility of a second run-off and the possibility that Frelimo won’t get a majority in parliament,” says Fernando Lima, the head of Mediacoop, an independent media house. “People were not expecting the opposition to be so powerful.”
Mr Dhlakama’s popularity can be attributed in part to the “hero” status the charismatic former rebel garnered while holed up in the bush, he says. There is also a sense that many Mozambicans are growing weary of the 39-year rule of Frelimo amid complaints about graft and the yawning gap between the elite and the impoverished masses.
Frelimo and Renamo fought a civil war that ended in 1992 and since then Mozambique has been one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies. But it has remained impoverished, with 70 per cent of the 25m population in rural areas and half of all Mozambicans trapped in poverty.
Throughout, there has been a blurring between party and state, with complaints that opportunities arise only for members of Frelimo, a former Marxist party that dominates many areas of society.
Professor Joseph Hanlon, a senior lecturer at the UK’s Open University and an expert on Mozambique, is still forecasting a Frelimo victory, saying the party of liberation benefits from having brought health and education “to nearly everybody” as it built the young country.
It also enjoys the advantages of incumbency, with far greater resources than its competitors and an unrivalled election machinery. But, Mr Hanlon says, there has been a backlash against Frelimo’s leadership amid frustrations at the slow pace of development.
“In the last 20 years poverty has not been decreasing in rural areas and there are young people who cannot get jobs,” he says. “So there is a sense they have not done enough; they could have done better.”
Manuel Sumbana, a telecoms engineer and traditional Frelimo voter, says he is still undecided who to cast his ballot for. “I’m very critical of them,” he says. “Frelimo has become too arrogant . . . it will be very close and anything could happen.