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Tense Local Polls in Mozambique Could Signal Major Political Shift

FILE - Fishing boats sit beneath the skyline of Mozambique's capital Maputo, Apr. 15, 2016.

The tension and complexity of Mozambique’s upcoming municipal elections — which may signal a major political shift in the Southern African nation — can be seen by looking at the poll’s highest-profile contest: the mayoral race in the capital.

Last week, the electoral commission kicked the two top candidates for mayor of Maputo off the ballot. They include the top candidate for the opposition Renamo Party, Venancio Mondlane, and the man who many thought would be a natural choice for the ruling party, Samora Machel Jr.

Machel is a son of Samora Machel, Mozambique’s first president and co-founder of the powerful Frelimo Party, which has ruled the nation since 1975.

But to many people's surprise, Frelimo passed over Machel Jr. for the mayor post. He is now trying to run as an independent — if the electoral commission allows him on the ballot. That could set up an intrafamily conflict, as Machel’s father-in-law, former tourism minister Fernando Sumbana, made the ruling party shortlist for the mayoral race.

Mozambique's Constitutional Court has the power to put both Mondlane and Machel Jr. back on the ballot. But journalist and commentator Fernando Lima says he has doubts it will be resolved in their favor.

“Having our legal bodies being strongly controlled by the political powers, I have very strong doubts that the constitutional council will rule in favor of the Renamo candidate and Samora Machel, Jr.," he told VOA.

Nervousness ahead of 2019 polls

Alex Vines, head of the Africa Program for think tank Chatham House, said the October 10 local polls, which encompass 53 municipalities, could set the stage for contentious national elections in 2019.

Ahead of the polls, parliament has introduced fees starting at $2,500 for foreign journalists seeking to report in Mozambique. Journalists and rights groups have condemned the proposed fees, saying they amount to censorship.

In addition, “we can already see that there are some splits within Frelimo in the runup to the municipal elections,” Vines said. “Look at Samora Machel Jr., for example, contending for being mayor of Maputo, that against the official Frelimo candidate. So, this is interesting political times in Mozambique, for sure.”

The elections, Vines believes, are going to be extremely close, "and therefore, the authorities are nervous about this,” he said.

But this is no mere political contest, said journalist and commentator Fernando Lima. Renamo fought Frelimo in a brutal 16-year civil war. Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama resumed hostilities in 2014. Dhlakama died suddenly in May, as he was negotiating a peace deal with the government.

“We cannot forget that along with the election process, we have the peace process, which has not been concluded yet,” Lima said. "Renamo still have their armed forces in position, and if you do not manage politically the whole electoral process, yes, you can have a lot of trouble, especially coming from the Renamo side.”