By Jared Jeffery, Political Analyst at NKC African Economics
On Monday evening, July 16, President John Magufuli told the country that his Revolutionary Party (CCM) would be “in power forever, for eternity”, according to news agency AFP.
He was giving a speech to mark the beginning of construction of the Mwalimu Nyerere Leadership School – a centre funded by the Communist Party of China (CPC), CCM and the liberation (and ruling) parties of South Africa (the African National Congress – ANC), Namibia (South West African People’s Organisation – Swapo), Angola (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola – MPLA), and Mozambique (Mozambique Liberation Front – Frelimo).
His comments are reminiscent of those of former South African President Jacob Zuma when he said the ANC would rule “until Jesus comes”. However, if trends over the last two elections continue (as recent polling by Twaweza suggests it might), forever may not be all that long a wait.
Asked which party’s presidential candidate they would vote for if elections were held today, 55% told Twaweza in April they would cast their ballot for the CCM. If accurate, this would indicate a further slide in the ruling party’s share from 80% in 2005 to 63% in 2010 and further to 59% in the last elections in 2015.
The pollsters showed that the ruling party’s decline was not an isolated phenomenon. Approval ratings for the village, ward and parliamentary representatives have all been in steady decline over the past seven years.
Magafuli, too, has not escaped the fall in support; his approval rating went from a highest-ever-recorded 96% in 2016 to a lowest-on-record 55% this April.
The survey results, however, will unlikely cheer the opposition. The biggest opposition party, the Democracy and Progress Party (Chadema), did not perform well in the voter intention question, with only 15% saying they would vote for its presidential candidate (in the last election they received 40% of the votes).
However, 29% said they did not know who they would vote for or refused to answer. Chadema’s poor showing could be due to the fact that it does not currently have a clear candidate voters could back (Edward Lowassa would be unlikely to lead the campaign again). With a suitable individual in the role, it is likely that the party would get the lion’s share of the currently undecided vote.
A further interesting finding was that CCM support in rural areas, where it previously dominated, has waned considerably and views held by country and city folk have converged.
This represents a possible opportunity for the opposition to expand its reach beyond the urban pool of voters.
Besides voting intentions, the Twaweza survey revealed the effects of Mr Magufuli and the CCM’s turn to authoritarianism.
Around 64% of respondents said opposition parties were less free to hold rallies and state their views (political rallies remain banned and the Chadema leadership is facing charges of sedition) and 62% said the ability of media to report on government mistakes or to criticise the government had declined.
The clampdown has seemingly increased awareness of the need for strong opposition.
Over the past two years, the proportion of Tanzanians saying that opposition parties keep government on the right track between elections and help development increased from 51% to 64%.
Since releasing its survey, titled ‘Speaking Truth to Power?’, Twaweza has been threatened with legal action by the government.
The title of the survey shows the organisation knew it would be in for a fight – the question mark, however, is a bit ambiguous.
Like all such surveys, the results are sensitive to the period in which respondents were asked. In April, Chadema’s leadership was rounded up and arrested, so it is unsurprising that sympathy for the opposition was high.
Afrobarometer, another polling organisation, asked Tanzanians whether they approved of Magufuli’s performance between April and June last year (just when he was taking on foreign gold miners) and found that 85% of respondents were pleased.
What counts at the end of the day is election results, and the last three have shown a clear decline in CCM dominance.
For the CCM to rule forever, it seems it would have to do away with elections.
Events on Zanzibar in 2015 and the authoritarian turn under Mr Magufuli suggest we should not dismiss that possibility altogether.
Get the best of CNBC Africa sent straight to your inbox with breaking business news, insights and updates from experts across the continent. Sign up here.