Only 11 million (as of October 13, 2019) out of 27 million targeted eligible voters had registered to vote for the upcoming civic elections through which local government leaders get elected. This was a rather surprising revelation by the Minister of State in the President’s Office (Regional Administration and Local Government), Mr
Selemani Jafo. And this was only a few days before the deadline for the end of registration.
This number is a far cry from the close to 23 million (out of 24 million eligible citizens) who registered to vote in the 2015 national level election or even the 11.5 million out of 18.5 million who registered for the last civic elections in 2014.
In response, the government extended the deadline by a few days (with the minister announcing on Friday that over 19 million eligible voters had turned out to exercise their constitutional right).
Yet, there have been a number of reforms to make voting and registering easier, especially in terms of time and cost, since 2015.
All eligible voters are now registered using the biometric voters’ register (BVR) kits so that registering is easier and quicker with less room for error; there has been extensive civic education on how to register and how to vote so that more people are informed; and people can now register in more convenient locations – nearby centres in their own community meaning that it costs less time and money to register.
But it seems that reducing the time and money taken, or the general burden, for registering has not encouraged greater turnout.
And yet voting is the most basic act of civic responsibility. Twaweza research has shown people see voting as an important community good; failure to vote can lead to negative responses from your community.
So what could we driving this low turnout as reported earlier? Is choosing not to register also a vote? Is it a vote of disatisfaction? Of disengagement? Of disillusionment?
Although Twaweza has not been able to generate any new Sauti za Wananchi polls in the past year, previous data saw citizens express disatisfaction with the country’s trajectory: they were unhappy with economic direction and felt markedly less free than three years prior.
So, are citizens so unhappy that they don’t want to vote? Certainly restrictions on access to information and free expression as well as the right to assemble and associate can also contribute to this disatisfaction and lack of willingness to register.
Or could it be disengagement? Findings by Sauti za Wananchi in 2015 did show that up to two thirds of Tanzania citizens say they are not informed about political issues in the country.
A number of studies in the last fifty years demonstrate that the more citizens are politically interested, informed and engaged, the more likely they are to register and vote.
Thus the statement “A democracy works only to the extent that the voter is well informed”. In addition, the government urged citizens to disengage from politics immediately after the last elections to ensure undivided attention on development projects.
This was further cemented through banning of political rallies until the next elections. So are citizens simply feeling uninformed to the extent that they do not want to register?
Or are citizens disillusioned with the political process? Do they feel that it does not matter whether they vote or not, that government is run externally to their desires, hopes and dreams? In 2016, Sauti za Wananchi findings showed that 1 out of 3 citizens who did not register to vote believe their vote does not count and it makes no difference whether they register and vote or not.
The low levels of turnout are a cause for great concern, particularly in Tanzania with a long and proud history of high levels of voter turnout and extensive community-led pressure for all citizens to vote. Although ease, accesibility and technology are important factors in determining whether citizens come out to register, perhaps these data indicate that reforms have focused in the wrong areas.
In order to participate meaningfully, citizens need to be well-informed with access to diverse viewpoints and sources of information. They need to be able to express themselves, to debate freely with family, friends and co-workers, to give words to doubts and fears or anticipation and excitement. Citizens need to feel like there are rules in place to ensure their votes are respected: this means the law needs to be seen as applicable to all. And they need to be able to organise themselves into groups, and see a diverse array of parties so they can find one to represent their interests. They need to feel that the game is played fairly with a fair shot for any team to win. In short we need political discourse and activity centred on justice, fairness and equity.
Whatever the reasons why people are not registering we can but speculate. Nonetheless, it seems that citizens are sending a message: they are reluctant to participate in the upcoming local government elections. The question is, are we listening?
Melania Omengo is the manager for Sauti za Wananchi at Twaweza. The views expressed are her own .