So finally it has happened. After being unceremoniously dumped out of the race for the CCM presidential nomination, followed by more than two weeks of will-they-won’t-they flirtations and negotiations, Edward Lowassa has been welcomed into Chadema’s embrace. With the other parties in the Ukawa coalition (CUF, NCCR and NLD) apparently in support, it looks like Lowassa is set to become the coalition’s presidential candidate.
As a former Prime Minister, Lowassa is the most high ranking CCM figure to switch parties since Tanzania introduced multi-party politics. He was many people’s favourite to win the CCM nomination, and this move has the potential to dramatically shake up Tanzanian politics – and the forthcoming general election.
Lowassa comes with baggage. To his (many) supporters he has a record of getting things done, and has been unfairly painted by CCM as fisadi-in-chief, the scapegoat for government corruption. But to his detractors, he is the embodiment of the abuse of public office for personal gain.
Nor is he a good fit for Ukawa, policy-wise. Ukawa’s two main policies were support for the “Warioba draft” constitution and an anti-corruption platform. And yet the main architect of the changes to the proposed constitution that Ukawa dislike so much was Andrew Chenge, a leading member of Team Lowassa. And Ukawa will find it hard to credibly maintain a strong anti-corruption stance with Lowassa leading their team. But apparently these contradictions have been swept aside, which is why some are saying that we look set for an election free from policy or ideology.
Chadema (and its coalition partners) have swallowed their pride and/or principles in allowing into their ranks a politician who was for many years the focus of their attacks on CCM. Those in Chadema with presidential aspirations of their own – primarily Dr Slaa – have sacrificed personal ambitions. All in the hope that with Lowassa as their flag-bearer, Ukawa might have a chance of victory. It’s a gamble.
It’s a different kind of gamble for Lowassa himself. Realistically, his only other option was retirement.
In many ways, the deal makes all the actors involved look a little desperate. It looks like Chadema and Ukawa had no confidence in Dr Slaa to defeat the CCM nominee, John Magufuli. It looks like Lowassa had run out of options. It looks like Chadema put winning power above their principles. It looks like Lowassa puts personal ambition way above party loyalty.
To the observer, the obvious question is this: what effect will all this have on the elections? For the moment, however, it’s a question best avoided. There are far too many unknowns for any predictions to be trusted. Here are the key questions:
1. How much of Lowassa’s support within CCM will go with him?
We could see a mass defection of hundreds of thousands of party members, even of sitting MPs, regional party chairs and some current and former Ministers. If his supporter’s claims about the extent of his popularity are even half true, then this could even become the moment that CCM effectively splits down the middle. Equally, we could be about to discover that much of this support was more about political expediency (and/or money) than real commitment to Lowassa as an individual. A lot of people are making choices right now, and with all parties well into the process of selecting their parliamentary candidates, these choices will have to be made quickly. The emperor may yet be revealed to be wearing no clothes.
2. Where will the money go?
It is no secret that Lowassa had wealthy financial backers, and they too have choices to make. It is unlikely that Lowassa would have done what he has done unless he was confident that the money will follow him. But it is also unlikely that they would risk being left entirely without political cover in the event that he loses. Backing both sides is an expensive option, but at least that way you are guaranteed to win.
3. How will Chadema (and Ukawa) leadership cope with the new big fish in their pond?
Dr Slaa was apparently absent from the press conference yesterday, along with several other senior Chadema figures. Is this a sign that not everyone in the party was on board with the decision? We might be about to see a series of defections from Chadema (and other Ukawa coalition members), either to Zitto Kabwe’s new party, ACT-Wazendo, or even to CCM. ACT is in need of a presidential candidate – Zitto is (constitutionally) too young. If Freeman Mbowe and Lowassa can patch over their past differences then perhaps Dr Slaa and Zitto can do the same?
4. How will Chadema supporters react?
Much of Chadema’s support has been grounded in an anti-corruption stance. Will rank-and-file party members (and wider supporters) simply accept they’re now on the side of one of Tanzania’s most divisive and controversial politicians? How much support will Ukawa lose by having Lowassa on board?
5. What is around the next corner?
Lowassa could collapse at a public rally. (His health has been the subject of rumours). He could use his inside knowledge of CCM to unload a barrage of attacks against President Kikwete’s government. Alternatively, CCM could discover a lost piece of evidence against Lowassa that drags him into legal battles.
And you never know, there might even be a discussion of policy at some point.