Observers Fear the ‘Defeat of Democracy’ in Tanzania

(Bloomberg) -- Tanzanians already have to watch what they publish, tweet and even sing. Now President John Magufuli’s administration is poised to put opposition parties under even greater scrutiny.

Proposed amendments to the East African nation’s Political Parties Act would give a regulator sweeping powers to monitor the funding, membership and plans of opposition groups. Critics say it could effectively criminalize dissent, already rare three years after Magufuli took office. One firebrand lawmaker compared it to legislation in Nazi Germany.

Observers Fear the ‘Defeat of Democracy’ in Tanzania

“We are watching the defeat of democracy in Tanzania,” Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham in the U.K., said on Twitter. “It is a slow and painful death by a thousand cuts. If current trends continue, there will not be much left by the next election” in 2020.

Should such a forecast come true, it would edge Tanzania ever closer to one-man rule under a president who’s nicknamed the “bulldozer” and predicts his party will govern forever. As he wages war on corruption and battles international companies to win the country a greater share of mining profits, Magufuli is also accused of presiding over a wide-ranging crackdown on the press and a once-vibrant opposition. Mineral- and gas-rich Tanzania has East Africa’s largest economy after Kenya.

Ruling Party Dominance

Although various iterations of the Chama Cha Mapinduzi party have governed since Tanzania was unified in 1964, opponents say there was leeway for political debate, even during the rule of Julius Nyerere, the nation’s uncompromising founding father. The 1992 parties act introduced multi-party democracy; the 2015 vote, which Magufuli won, was the closest-ever contest.

Under changes to that act approved by Tanzania’s parliament, a new regulator would be responsible for monitoring a swath of activities carried out by political parties and advising the government on its findings. That could mean it probing opposition parties’ internal elections, income, spending and training plans, among other things -- with fines or jail-time to any leader found to have contravened the act.

Critics say the amendments, which still need Magufuli’s approval to become law, are vaguely worded, leaving it unclear what exact information could be demanded from the opposition. The registrar is guaranteed immunity from prosecution and can suspend any party not seen as complying with its requirements.

Hitler Comparisons

Government spokesman Hassan Abbasi said the law would help the registrar “oversee democracy, rule of law and accountability within the parties.” It will “lead to more transparency in party internal elections, financial reporting and property registry,” he said.

But Zitto Kabwe, a lawmaker who heads the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency and has previously been detained for criticizing the government, pulled no punches when he addressed Tanzania’s parliament in late January.

The proposals, Kabwe said, mirror Germany’s Enabling Act of 1933 that allowed Adolf Hitler to issue decrees separate from the Reichstag. “Hitler used the same law that parliament has passed to abolish political parties and forced some legislators to flee the country,” he told lawmakers in the capital, Dodoma.

Legislating ‘Out of Existence’

Kabwe’s comparison “may sound extreme, but it’s not completely unfair,” said Rachael McLellan, a doctoral candidate at Princeton University who’s studying opposition parties and decentralization in Tanzania. “The bill creates an environment that is so difficult, expensive and time-consuming to navigate that it essentially legislates opposition parties out of existence.”

The law will make it harder to publicly oppose the government and campaign for votes, which in turn will affect the opposition’s ability to retain their seats in parliament or in local councils, she said.

The secretary-general of the opposition Civic United Front, Seif Sharif Hamad, was blunter.

“This law is another ploy by the regime to further stifle the political space in the country,” he said.

The head of ideology with the main opposition Chadema party, Hemed Ally, agreed.

“This legislation goes against the tenets of justice and democracy and is unconstitutional,” he said. “The passage of this law has set back our country’s democratic space for at least 50 years and will contribute to increases in poverty and the rise of dictatorship.”

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