, MAPUTO, October 16 – Mozambicans voted Wednesday in a closely fought test for the ruling Frelimo party, which has run the southern African country since independence from Portugal in 1975, with opposition parties crying foul.
Frelimo is facing growing discontent over a wealth gap that persists despite huge mineral resources, with fast economic growth sidestepping the bulk of a population that is among the world’s poorest.
But members of the two opposition parties later claimed they had discovered attempts to stuff ballots by the ruling party.
“A young man was shot (in the feet). He tried to stop the Frelimo (local) secretary from stuffing boxes,” in central Sofala province, said Sandes Carmona, spokesman for the fledgling MDM opposition party.
In northern Nampula province, riot police used teargas to disperse a crowd that had gathered at a polling station to watch the counting, claimed the MDM representative in the area, Elias Nquiri.
Main opposition Renamo spokesman, Adriano Muchunga, claimed police opened fire in Nampula, the largest electoral province.
The electoral commission, local and foreign observers confirmed some incidents had occurred, but said on the overall, voting went on fairly smoothly.
“There have been some incidents here and there but in general the situation is under control,” Paulo Cuinica, spokesman for the national Electoral Commission told AFP, adding voting went on “smoothly”
“We noticed some irregularities, but I would say all in all until closing time, it was fairly okay. It was calm,” EU observer chief Judith Sargentini told AFP.
Counting started shortly after polling closed at 6:00 pm (1600 GMT) but final results are not expected for two weeks.
Incumbent President Armando Guebuza, from Frelimo, is prohibited by the constitution from running for a third term.
So the presidential race pits Frelimo’s Filipe Nyusi, the former defence minister, against the veteran leader of former rebel group Renamo, Afonso Dhlakama, and Daviz Simango, Beira city mayor and founder of the Mozambique Democratic Party (MDM).
“I am convinced of a victory,” 55 year old Nyusi told reporters after casting his ballot. “We have worked for a long time, very hard to prepare for this election.”
Dhlakama, 61, who voted at the same polling station, has cried foul each time he lost in previous elections. But he expressed hope that this vote would be free and fair.
“Results will be accepted when they are clean. As you know on the African continent, results are often not clean,” he said.
“We hope for the first time in Mozambique results will be acceptable, proper and with credibility.”
– ‘I want change’ –
“I want change. I want to see development. We need jobs and new schools,” said first-time voter Otavio do Santos, who cast his ballot at a makeshift polling station in the low-income neighbourhood of Xipamanine in the capital Maputo.
His sentiments were echoed by other young people at the polling stations. But despite poverty and unemployment, many said they were sticking with the ruling party.
The government amended election laws earlier this year as part of peace negotiations with Renamo, which demanded that the opposition be given greater control over the electoral process in a bid to improve transparency.
But opposition parties failed to deploy agents at many of the 17,000 polling stations.
The EU said opposition monitors were absent from around a third of the stations it had visited.
South African Foreign Minister, Maite Nkoana Mashabane, who is heading an observer mission from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) said voting had been “very peaceful, calm” and “efficient”.
Analysts say Frelimo is expected to win the election, but the opposition is likely to make significant inroads, reducing the ruling party’s overwhelming majority of 75 percent from the last vote.
Chatham House researcher Alex Vines believe the election is the “most important” in Mozambique since the first post war vote in 1994.
“Investors are watching Mozambique closely and want stability and predictability,” said Vines, as the country stands on the cusp of becoming a gas producer.
Over 10 million voters were registered for the presidential race, plus polls for national and provincial assemblies.
Renamo, which has lost all elections since the end of the country’s 16 year civil war in 1992, has made something of a comeback, trying to spruce up its image after emerging from a low level insurgency waged in the centre of the country just weeks ahead of the election.
At the same time the fledgling MDM is gaining popularity, after winning 40 percent of the vote in Maputo in municipal elections last December.