Time for change? Tanzania’s digital democracy

Time for change? Tanzania’s digital democracy

This weekend’s elections in Tanzania are expected to be the closest in the country’s democratic history. With President Jakaya Kikwete standing down from the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, it will be a close race between new candidate John Magufuli and former Prime Minister Edward Lowassa. One thing is for certain: social media will play a significant role in deciding Tanzania’s next leader.

The youth vote

Social media has given voters, especially Tanzania’s youth, a platform to vocalise their strong desire for change. The ‘youth vote’ takes on a new meaning in a country where 60% of voters are under the age of 35. Lowassa has substantial support from the young, urban and tech-literate middle-classes. While previous generations showed loyalty to the CCM, first-time voters don’t share these historical ties. Rather than accepting the party’s authority, young people are increasingly challenging the status-quo. Naturally, calls for change are aired online, with hashtags like #Wearerestless and #YouthPower doing the rounds on Twitter.

Despite broad support from rural and older voters, the CCM is now attempting to appeal to younger audiences. Magufuli has distanced himself from the political elite by organising entertaining political rallies. The CCM has over 58,000 followers on Twitter, compared to opposition party Chadema’s 594. Its slogan #HapaKaziTu or #kazitu (“only here to work”) has been tweeted over 180,000 times in the last two months. They might not be successful, but both parties understand the importance of appealing to younger voters through digital channels.

Political trash-talk

It’s no secret that social media isn’t always used for constructive debate.  In Tanzania, there are reports of opposition smear campaigns conducted on WhatsApp. With the service pre-installed on an estimated 8 million Tanzanian phones, it is reportedly being used by ‘unofficial’ campaigners to reach voters. Memes are circulated to create widespread ridicule of party leaders.  One meme states that Magufuli is corrupt, another questions Lowassa’s health. One of the most popular depicts Magufuli’s recent stunt – doing push ups at a campaigning event – in juxtaposition with the statesmanlike Lowassa. Needless to say, this sparked a flurry of funny responses, with people (and cats) re-creating the image online.

But WhatsApp campaigns are no joke. Viral content has been adopted by the traditional Tanzanian media. A recent video, claiming to show Lowassa attracting voters on the grounds of religion, was first shared on WhatsApp. Newspapers picked up the story, giving Magufuli the chance to condemn this as ‘divisive politics’. For better or for worse, digital platforms are also influencing mainstream political coverage.

What’s next?

Whatever the result on Sunday, the new leader must respond to expectations of change. Election-related hashtags and political mudslinging are fuelling debates – online and off. Discussions on social media have proved that the electorate is engaged and wants to make a difference. Let’s just hope that promises are fulfilled and any post-election transition runs smoothly.

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