/ 18 December 2023

Mozambique’s 2023 local elections: Elections against democracy

“For the first time in 40 years since independence
Frelimo’s overwhelming victory in Mozambique’s recent local elections has been characterised by unprecedented levels of popular rejection, giving the false impression that Mozambicans are opposed to the consolidation of democracy through holding regular elections. (Reuters/Grant Lee Neuenburg)

On Sunday, 10 December, elections were rerun in parts of four small local municipalities in Mozambique, following the country’s constitutional court’s order on the municipal elections of last October. Once again, violence, intimidation, accusations of vote rigging and other irregularities dominated the elections. Preliminary vote counting point, once again, to Frelimo’s victory in all of the four municipalities, with the opposition parties rejecting again the results and independent observers complaining, once again, about major irregularities. 

The elections and their aftermaths exemplify the events that are taking place in the country and that took place a few weeks ago: the scandalous role of the constitutional court, unprecedented post-electoral tensions, the main opposition party at risk of internal divisions, and a dominant ruling party ready to keep power at all costs.

Frelimo’s overwhelming victory in Mozambique’s recent local elections has been characterised by unprecedented levels of popular rejection, giving the false impression that Mozambicans are opposed to the consolidation of democracy through holding regular elections, in a country where liberal democracy has been established as the principal strategy for peace building and political stability. This most recent Pyrrhic victory further damages the image of the ruling party, the credibility of electoral bodies and courts, as well as may threaten Frelimo’s internal stability, less than a year before the next general elections. For the opposition party Renamo, too, despite having confirmed significant urban popular support, the election may have ended as a Pyrrhic victory with visible signs of internal frictions, as the 2024 general elections approach. 

Meanwhile, many questions arise from what has recently transpired in Mozambique, including Frelimo’s apparent refusal to hand over power to the opposition and to consolidate peace and democracy in a country dominated by post-electoral violence; the reasons behind Mozambicans increasingly contesting Frelimo’s hegemony; as well as what could be the possible implications of pseudo elections for the future of country in so much need of peace and democracy.

A constitutional court in the service of the ruling party 

On 24 November, Mozambique’s constitutional court largely confirmed what most analysts and observers had already anticipated. Once again, Frelimo, which has ruled the country since 1975, was proclaimed the winner of the sixth local elections held on 11 October. According to the constitutional court’s decision, Frelimo took 56 municipalities, Renamo took four, and the Democratic Movement of Mozambique (MDM) retained the rebellious city of Beira. Sixty-five municipalities were up for grabs in total. But voting had to be repeated on 10 December in four municipalities, including in Nacala-Porto, because of what the constitutional court considered to be major irregularities that affected the electoral results. Despite being the last court of appeal, the constitutional court’s decision itself has also been subject to contestation by the opposition and civil society, because of its lack of proper argumentation and the general perception that the ruling party controls the court.    

In other major important municipalities where parallel vote counting by Renamo and most independent observers points to Renamo’s victory, such as the capital city of Maputo, the industrial municipality of Matola, and the city of Nampula, against all odds, the constitutional court confirmed Frelimo’s victory. Out of these three cities, only Nampula is to change hands from Renamo to Frelimo based on the results of these elections. The rest will remain under Frelimo’s control. But Frelimo’s victory has been under unprecedented popular rejection. Mozambique has never seen so many people on the streets and such strong public rejection of an electoral result.    

Demonstration as a sign of dissatisfaction

Meanwhile, major urban municipalities such as Maputo, Nampula, and Quelimane have been experiencing regular demonstrations against Frelimo’s victory. According to reports, up to 2 000 people took part in an initial demonstration in Maputo. But this apparently small number should not be underestimated in view of the expected police reaction. In some cases the police used force against the people with human rights groups calling for investigations of police brutality. Because of the unprecedented amount of evidence of irregularities, civil society groups and the opposition have labelled these local elections as nothing but a “mega-fraud” without precedent in Mozambique’s electoral history. 

Complaints about the local elections were already visible prior to voting day itself. For example, during the campaign, biassed coverage by the public broadcasters favoured the ruling party. Voter registration was marked by accusations of penalising opposition strongholds, including intimidation of potential opposition voters to prevent them from registering. Technical failures in voter card printers were also recorded, leading many to point to a clear strategy by Frelimo to interfere in the process. Added to this long list of irregularities is the fact that residents from areas without municipalities where said to have been brought to vote in municipal areas, where they clearly do not belong. Some observers have gone as far as to argue that Frelimo’s interference resulted in some 700 000 potential opposition voters being excluded from the election. 

On Saturday, 11 November, and the days that followed, more irregularities were experienced during the voting and counting process. In some areas, people were found carrying ballot papers pre-stamped in favour of Frelimo. Opposition party observers were blocked from supervising both the voting and the counting processes. Ballot box stuffing in favour of Frelimo was recorded in some voting stations. Social media videos circulated showing people voting for the ruling party even after voting day. Moreover, strange and systematic power cuts were experienced at night, exactly at the time when the votes were being counted. Members of the polling stations refused to sign final voting reports when the counting gave advantage to the opposition parties. The police interfered with the process, in particular by blocking independent media and opposition observers from covering the counting of the votes. 

The level of irregularities marking the election proved to be so shocking that it sent the people into the streets. The protests that followed were so embarrassing to the ruling party that some of its prominent members, such as Graça Machel, called for the leadership to respect the will of the people. More importantly, the appeal included the need for Frelimo to conduct an internal reflection on its relationship with the people of Mozambique.

What does it mean for Renamo and the 2024 election?

Machel’s invitation to her comrades must be taken seriously, especially considering that the next general presidential and parliamentary elections will take place next year and no clear candidate for the party seems to exist yet. While no major split can be expected in the party, the anger that is being publicly directed against Frelimo now will certainly be reflected in the 2024 elections. Something needs to be done by the party if it wishes to remain in power legitimately.   

But, Renamo too has its own issues to worry about. Its internal stability may also be at risk as a result of this election. It is highly probable that the party will go to the next year’s elections with the current national leadership under contestation. During the ongoing demonstrations against the electoral results it was apparent that while the national leader, Ossufo Momade, preferred a more negotiated solution with Frelimo to overcome the electoral crisis, others such as Venâncio Mondlane (the party’s mayoral candidate for the city of Maputo) and Manuel de Araújo (the elected candidate for the city of Quelimane) adopted a more confrontational strategy. Their strategy was based on mass mobilisation and lobbying of diplomatic representations in Mozambique, such as the United States. Already perceived as a weak leader, in a context where the idea of strongmen dominates politics, Momade’s “weaknesses” were further exposed in this election, which may provide a perfect ground for internal contestants of its leadership to push for a different candidate for the 2024 elections. The future of Renamo will depend on how potential conflicts over its national leadership will be managed internally. A task that does not seem to be easy for Momade who has also been accused of being on Frelimo’s payroll.       

For Frelimo, after 48 years in power, many other issues have played a role in this election. High levels of corruption involving party members, the failure of the government to pay public servants regularly and timely, high levels of criminality including kidnapping of members of the business community involving the police and some magistrates, persistent poverty, inequality and unemployment are among some of the issues driving popular anger towards the ruling party. More importantly, the inability of the ruling party to reinvent itself to address the problems the country is facing and its desire to remain in power at any costs have turned its relationship with Mozambicans into some sort of “coercive cohabitation”. 

It is clear that the general sentiment and the evidence put forward by the opposition, observers, civil society and the independent media support the claim of mega-fraud. Coupled with the general belief that Frelimo controls the institutions responsible for organising, supervising and validating elections, this accusation ensures that the future of Mozambique will be marked by more violence, as its pseudo elections persistently fail to bring about the necessary political legitimacy to the ruler.

Fredson Guilengue works for the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in Johannesburg. Andreas Bohne heads the Africa Unit of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Germany. He holds a master’s degree in African studies, geography and international agricultural sciences.