Tanzania’s electoral rules: A chance to level the playing field

What you need to know:

  • Elections are competitions, and in any good competition, the rules of the game are vital.

For election enthusiasts, 2024 is a bumper year. National elections will be held in the US, India, UK, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Korea, South Africa and at least 55 other countries, representing over 4 billion people, more than half the world’s population.

In Tanzania, we look forward to local government elections this year, and look forward to the big General Election in October 2025.

Elections are competitions, and in any good competition, the rules of the game are vital.

In football, for example, before we can play a fair and proper match we need a common understanding of what constitutes a foul, an offside and how much of the ball has to cross the line for a goal to be scored.

We may argue furiously about whether specific incidents on the pitch meet the definition of a foul – or an offside – as laid out in the laws of the game. What we don’t argue about are whether those laws are necessary.

When it comes to politics and democracy, the same applies. To have any chance of fairness, all participants must first agree on the rules.

They must also have faith in the impartiality of the referee who enforces the rules.

The government has proposed a review of various laws that govern elections in Tanzania.

Amendments have been presented to Parliament on the Election Expenses Act and the Political Parties Act. MPs are also considering a new law called the Presidential, Parliamentary and Councillor Elections Bill that replaces two old laws on the same topic.

Another new law that provides more detail on how the National Electoral Commission (NEC) must operate is also on the table.

As a nation, we’re rightly making sure that good rules are in place and agreed before players take to the field.

Various court decisions have concluded that the current set of election-related laws in Tanzania have major weaknesses.

The African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), for example, has directed the government to allow legal challenges to Presidential election results, which the law does not currently allow.

The same court has also said that independent candidates (not affiliated to any party) should be allowed to contest elections, and that District Executive Directors are not sufficiently independent to be fairly given the role of election officials.

This review is a perfect opportunity to make sure that the election laws incorporate these important court rulings.

So let us take a look at the changes that the new bills are proposing.

The first thing to note is that not much is being proposed that is different to what was done before.

There are a few relatively minor tweaks to how election expenses are reported by candidates and their parties, to how political parties should manage themselves, to how party nominees are approved by NEC, etc. And that’s it.

In other words, there are no changes proposed that would allow independent candidates, that would ensure election officials are not civil servants whose career prospects depend on staying in favour with those in power, or that would allow for Presidential results to be challenged in court.

The government is instead simply ignoring these court rulings.

Similarly, various weaknesses in our electoral processes have been pointed out many times by key participants.

The most obvious of these is the lack of real independence of the National Electoral Commission (NEC).

First, its senior leaders are appointed by the President – the leader of one the political parties. Second, its budget relies on allocations decided by ministers.

On this point, the proposed new law is almost comical. Tucked in between specifying that the NEC chair is appointed by the President and decreeing that NEC be funded as if it were an ordinary government department, there is a proclamation that “NEC will be a free and independent body”.

This makes about as much sense as stating in the rules of football that the referee will be chosen by the captain of one team, will be paid by the same team, and will be independent!

A similar argument can be made about the Office of the Registrar of Political Parties (ORPP).

In 2019, a new law expanded the Registrar’s powers to interfere with the internal management of political parties, turning this office from registrar to regulator.

It is yet another referee of the national political game who is appointed and paid by the captain of one of the teams.

Sadly, the proposed new laws do nothing to address these weaknesses in Tanzania’s electoral system.

We should not let this opportunity pass without trying hard to make the electoral process fairer.  We propose the following five ideas:

First, change how the National Electoral Commission and Registrar of Political Parties operate by requiring senior appointments to be made in consultation with the leaders of opposition parties.

A small committee made up of the leaders of the five political parties that achieved the highest number of votes at the previous election could be set up for this purpose.

Second, allow presidential election results to be challenged in court, as is already the case for parliamentary elections. 

Third, ensure that the returning officers tasked with overseeing elections at constituency level are truly independent by allowing different stakeholders, especially candidates, to have a say in their appointment.

Fourth, establish processes by which candidates (or their parties) who are disallowed by NEC from running can appeal this decision and/or re-submit their nominations.

Fifth, ensure that elections are transparent by requiring that all votes are counted and displayed at each polling station before being centrally collated, that results for each polling station are posted online at the earliest opportunity (before any final results are announced), and by explicitly allowing independent tallying of vote counts.

We have a crucial opportunity to make the rules fairer for all participants.

The proposed amendments continue to favour some players over others. We should not allow this to happen.

The rules of the political game are important. Let’s get them right this time.