Unlike the U.S. “winner take all” system, in Mozambique, parties — not candidates — claim national or provincial seats according to the percentage of votes they receive. For the first time, the party with a majority of votes in the provincial elections will also select the provincial governor.
The incumbent party won a landslide victory
Vote counting is incomplete, but it is certain that the incumbent party, Frelimo, has won the presidency and the National Assembly in a landslide. The party’s presidential candidate, Filipe Nyusi, running for his second and final term, garnered approximately 75 percent of the vote. Frelimo is likely to sweep the National Assembly with around 72 percent of the vote.
Frelimo also secured a majority in all 10 provincial assemblies (similar to state legislatures in the United States), even in several central provinces where the opposition party, Renamo, has historically performed well. These majorities give Frelimo the power to choose all provincial governors. Turnout overall was a modest 52 percent.
Frelimo’s lopsided national victory can’t be explained by a robust economy. Back-to-back cyclones, a growing domestic Islamist insurgency in the north and a $2 billion loan scam involving top state officials have scared off investors.
Frelimo campaigned aggressively
Economic growth has averaged about 3 percent recently — not high enough to address inequality or provide jobs to the country’s youth. Annual per capita income in 2017 was $458, not much better than a decade ago. Only 22 percent of families have access to electricity, and 5 percent receive piped water inside their homes. A much-anticipated windfall from liquefied natural gas production has not yet materialized.
So how did Frelimo win? Its well-orchestrated campaign, divisions within Renamo and fraud best explain the outcome. Frelimo’s team kicked into action even before the official campaign began in August. Seasoned party veterans led special brigades in each province to energize supporters and encourage them to turn out on election day. Nyusi appealed particularly to female supporters, calling them the “strength of Frelimo.”
Nyusi also logged many hours on the campaign trail. He hosted rallies in three districts per day and even managed a second appearance in some districts. Dubbed “red waves,” owing to the prominent use of the color red, Frelimo’s U.S.-style political rallies were dazzling displays of red banners, red posters and red shirts at each campaign stop.
Renamo couldn’t match Frelimo’s strength
Since the death of its veteran leader, Afonso Dhlakama, in 2018, Renamo has been wracked by a succession crisis. Members selected a new leader, Ossufo Momade, at last year’s party congress, but one faction disagreed with the choice and has sought violently to displace him. Despite receiving support from Dhlakama’s photogenic son, Bilal Sulay, nicknamed “Obama,” Momade has not quelled internal dissent. These divisions and Momade’s lack of name recognition probably depressed opposition turnout.
Election rigging and intimidation also played a role. Gross election irregularities included fake news, foreign interference, suspicious over-registration of voters and the murder of an election observer — all of which tarnish Frelimo’s victory.
Here’s an example. A “think tank” allegedly tied to Russia released a poll in September — even though publication of opinion polls is illegal in Mozambique. Without explaining who hired it or how it conducted the poll, the group projected a victory for the incumbent President Nyusi and for Frelimo in the National Assembly.
Violence and disruptions of rallies escalated sharply
Several politicians from different parties and civil rights activists were attacked and killed. Anastácio Matavele, a respected domestic election observer in Gaza province, was murdered. An investigation is ongoing, but early findings suggest that a special group within the police force carried out the assassination — potentially implicating the ruling party. There was also destruction of election material during the campaign.
Before the death of Matavele, many civil society activists and election observers had been speaking up about the fact that there were 330,000 more registered voters than the actual number of voting-age adults in Gaza, according to the 2017 census. Observers were concerned that election results in the province, which heavily favors Frelimo, would therefore include “phantom voters” — voters who are not alive and do not legally exist but whose “votes” somehow end up in the ballot box. Matavele’s murder may have been intended to silence these concerns, yet it only reinforced suspicions regarding electoral manipulation in Gaza.
Election day brought more trouble
Journalists covering the polls Oct. 15 identified individuals with blank ballots and some election officials carrying boxes stuffed with ballots. At some polling stations, turnout was greater than the number of registered voters; at others, people reportedly voted twice. Two Renamo officials were murdered in the northwest province of Tete.
Before the vote count, Renamo supporters burned down several polling stations, alleging fraud by election officials. Renamo then boycotted the observation of vote counting at the district level, declaring that the ruling party had rigged the process.
In addition, the government refused to authorize more than 3,000 domestic election observers, blocking their efforts to watch the voting process and final tally. The denial hobbled observers' attempts to conduct a countrywide parallel vote tabulation (PVT). A PVT records the results from each station just after election officials post the tally. The process is meant to ensure that vote tallies cannot be manipulated as they are reported up the electoral chain from the district to the national level.
Irregularities affect the magnitude of the results — but not the eventual winner. Of greater concern is that violence and election rigging undermine the credibility of the democratic process and may lead to a resumption of war in Mozambique.
Just before the electoral campaign began, President Nyusi and Momade signed a peace deal in August that ended several years of sporadic armed conflict between the government and Renamo. The conduct of the election and its contested results now jeopardize that agreement.
Anne Pitcher is a professor of political science and Afro-American and African studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Party Politics and Economic Reform in Africa’s Democracies (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and was in Mozambique to observe last week’s election.