Tanzanians cast their votes on Wednesday forming longs outside of polling locations for a presidential election that the opposition warned is compromised by manipulation, deadly violence and a massive internet slowdown in a country once praised as a beacon of peace in Africa.
Results declared by the electoral commission cannot be challenged in court, bringing urgency to efforts to monitor the vote, but opposition figures said observers were turned away from scores of polling stations. Some major independent observers like the European Union were not invited or barred.
Leading opposition candidate Tundu Lissu alleged "widespread irregularities" including ballot box-stuffing, tweeting that "if this continues, mass democratic action will be the only option to protect the integrity of the election." The survivor of an assassination attempt in 2017, Lissu returned this year to challenge populist President John Magufuli, who seeks a second five-year term.
Others reported intimidation. "My life is in danger," the chairman of a top opposition party, Freeman Mbowe of Chadema, tweeted early Wednesday, asserting that "heavily armed gangsters" protected by police raided his hotel and seized two of his security guards.
The electoral commission chair, Semistocles Kaijage, in a statement immediately after the polls closed said allegations of irregularities, including fake ballots, circulating on social media were not true. The commission had not received any formal notification of alleged fraud, he said.
The East African nation has become a human rights crisis as diplomats, the United Nations and others say the government under Magufuli has severely stifled media, civil society and opposition voices. He also has been accused of downplaying the coronavirus pandemic, declaring it defeated through prayer.
"We must continue to maintain peace," the president said after voting, showing off his inked finger. Magufuli, nicknamed "the bulldozer," has made his name in part by targeting corruption and strengthening one of Africa's fastest-growing economies.
Opposition challenger Lissu urged people to go into the streets to protest if election results are announced Thursday without being counted properly. Whoever receives the most votes wins, with no second round. Counting began immediately after polls closed, and results are expected within three days.
The opposition faces a major challenge in trying to unseat the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, in power since independence in 1961, as 15 presidential candidates sought a win, splitting support. More than 29 million people registered to vote.
Internet services slowed on Wednesday. Few in foreign media received approval to report on the ground.
"Everyone has the duty to protect the legitimacy of this general election," The Citizen newspaper said.
Deadly violence erupted ahead of the vote as Tanzania's other top opposition party, ACT Wazalendo, accused police of shooting dead nine people in the semi-autonomous region of Zanzibar. Chadema accused ruling party supporters of shooting dead two people at a rally Tuesday in a town in the northeast. The ruling party did not respond to requests for comment.
One voter in Zanzibar, Yahya Khamis, said it was doubtful the vote would be free or fair. "To our surprise we have been given only four ballot papers while we're required to vote for five candidates," Khamis said.
Another voter Jokha Mohammed, noted that "we're very much secured today on our safety." Police and military presence remained heavy.
Tanzania Elections Watch, a regional initiative of prominent personalities, has noted hate speech and intimidation of candidates and said the election will be flawed if held under current conditions.
In a statement Wednesday it warned that actions by security forces have created a "climate of fear," and it said it was "alarmed by the clampdown on communication channels, including suspension of bulk SMS services, reported blocking of social media sites, and slowing down of Internet communication."