More surprises in store as we head towards an unpredictable election

It has been a year of flip-flops so far, and we may yet experience more volte-faces before Christmas.

The front-running aspirant for the ruling party’s nomination for president was, despite apparent heavy support from the party faithful, axed by the structures.

Unhappy with the decision against him, and claiming the rules had been flouted, Edward Lowassa decided to leave Chama cha Mapinduzi and join the main opposition Chadema.

Chadema, who had for a long time vilified Lowassa as a corrupt CCM apparatchik, swallowed their words, invited him into their fold and allowed him to vie as a presidential aspirant.

Rumours started swirling that a number of Chadema leaders, uncomfortable with the strange-bedfellows situation that was emerging, had decided to quit. These included the party’s secretary-general and last election’s impressive presidential candidate, Wilbroad Slaa.

More surprises may emerge as Tanzania hurtles towards an unpredictable election slated for October, and major towns in Tanzania are abuzz with speculation and conjecture, mainly about what Lowassa’s bold action means for the country’s political future.

The Chadema leadership has been quick to explain its abrupt change of heart. They say their accusations of corruption targeted CCM, whose institutions, including the government, are “so corrupt that if you got the saintliest angel from heaven and put him in CCM for a week you would go back to find he has become a thief,’ said Chadema chairman Freeman Mbowe.

A Chadema central committee member and renowned academic Mwesiga Baregu stressed the institutional nature of the sins attributed to Lowassa.

“CCM wanted to paint Lowassa in such a bad light that one would think that if he were got rid of, everything in that party would be clean. But he has been out of the leadership for eight years and during those eight years the corruption scandals have become more and more egregious.”

Lowassa himself has been giving his version of the so-called Richmond scandal, over which he resigned as prime minister eight years ago. He has been repeating that everything he did was sanctioned by “my boss” (President Jakaya Kikwete) and that even when he wanted the negotiations terminated it was “my boss” who told him to continue.

It is becoming clear that in the upcoming campaign, if Lowassa is finally given the all-clear to represent Chadema, and by extension Ukawa (Umoja wa Katiba ya Wananchi), we are bound to witness a ruthless trading of barbs and much passing of the buck.

A couple of weeks ago, CCM chose the current Minister of Infrastructure John Pombe Magufuli, with a reputation for crunching numbers and statistics and sometimes erratic statements, but who is seen by many as a doer, a man of action. Lowassa too is seen as a man of action and his supporters credit him with many of the positive results posted by President Kikwete’s administration.

Lowassa had been amassing public support in a way that was seen by some as overkill. Hundreds of thousands signed his endorsement when only a couple of hundreds were needed. Bodaboda riders, students, youth groups and others thronged his home to “ask” him to run.

In the end, President Kikwete decided to ignore all those public manifestations and engineered Lowassa’s excision from the list of aspirants. It seemed then that the end of Lowassa the politician had arrived. But the man himself had other ideas, and other ideas had the man they needed.

The opposition has been waging an uphill struggle against the ruling party, CCM, which has been creaking and wheezing under the weight of a long-drawn incumbency.

It has been hard for the newer parties to break the stranglehold of CCM, which can call on the resources of the state, including the security forces, to do its bidding, including massaging election results in some cases.

Five years ago, the opposition showed signs of relative improvement when Dr Slaa scored some 18 per cent of the vote, and overall the opposition got slightly over 22 per cent. CCM continued to dominate parliament and, under its writ, there was little the opposition could effect in terms of governance.

The mounting frustration born out of that experience of helplessness, coupled with the popular perception that it was virtually “impossible” to dislodge CCM, led the leadership of the opposition to a see a rare opportunity for resolute action. They seized it. The opportunity came in the form of a politician with boundless ambition and dogged determination to go to State House.

The stage is set for a gargantuan duel, with Magufuli banking on CCM’s traditional broad base and Lowassa counting on the Ukawa platform and the rising youthful support for Chadema.

Ukawa was formed during the tortured attempts to write a new constitution, which President Kikwete started and then sabotaged. Ukawa has insisted to Lowassa, as price for its support, that he endorse and enact the Warioba Draft if he is elected. He has reportedly promised to do so.

It is expected that many CCM cadres will jump ship and join Lowassa in the opposition. Some former CCM MPs have already done so, along with a number of councillors.

Is it possible for the opposition, with Lowassa as its flag bearer, to defeat CCM? It is possible, even if it’s not all that probable. CCM has a strong physical presence in the country, down to the remotest village.

The opposition is mostly found in towns. CCM has name recognition, but non-delivery on its many promises, the scourge of corruption, deepening poverty and the impatience of an increasingly youthful population could prove to be its undoing.

As a young professional in Dar es Salaam put it, “This is a real opportunity to change and change meaningfully,” she told me. “I am excited at the prospect of a government headed by Edward Lowassa, with Ibrahim Lipumba [CUF chair] as prime minister. Very exciting, a new beginning.”

I had no comment.