Zanzibar vote could spark extremism

Election results have ignited violent protests in the moderate Muslim islands.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Violent protests triggered by claims of state-sponsored vote-rigging on the Tanzanian islands of Zanzibar have raised fears that an opening has now been created for Islamic extremists in the semi-autonomous Muslim archipelago.

The three days of demonstrations by outraged opposition supporters following Sunday's regional elections will embarrass Tanzania's president Benjamin Mkapa, a donor darling who's often considered a democratic pioneer.

Of greater concern, analysts say, is that the election result could spur an underground growth in hard-line Islam on the traditionally laid-back, moderately Muslim 'Spice Islands,' which lie 15 miles off mainland Tanzania.

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Previous polls for Zanzibar's legislature and its president, in 1995 and 2000, ended in bloodshed after similar claims of electoral fraud abetted by Tanzania's long-ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party.

As incumbent president and ruling party candidate Amani Abeid Karume was sworn in for a second term Wednesday, Seif Shariff Hamad, the candidate for the opposition Civic United Front (CUF) refused to recognize the results.

Was voting rigged?

Some observer groups, such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) have said in preliminary reports that Sunday's closely contested election was generally free and fair, in sharp contrast to what some voters, journalists, and the opposition said they witnessed.

The Monitor, for instance, saw three truckloads of uniformed troops arrive at one rural polling station as voting was closing, and force their way to the front of the line. Many already bore signs of the indelible ink painted on voters' left thumbs to show they have cast their ballots and to prevent double voting.

The European Union backed calls for an investigation into alleged electoral flaws.

Feeling disenfranchised

Mr. Hamad, who has promised 'Ukraine-style' protests, says his party "has demonstrated remarkable restraint and commitment to the rule of law and to peaceful political dialogue during the last 10 years while Zanzibar has been governed by unelected leaders."

But, for the third time in 10 years, they feel they have been robbed of their victory.

"We clearly see a vacuum that could be filled by the Islamist system that could show people that democracy, which they hoped would enable them to elect leaders they want, people with integrity, has failed," said Abdallah Said Ali, secretary of the Society for Islamic Awareness and Preaching in Zanzibar.

"Further human rights abuses and political disenfranchisement will likely serve to drive more youth into the arms of local radical preachers and international terrorists," says Horn of Africa terror expert Gregory Alonso Pirio.

The CUF draws the majority of its support from the poor communities that feel neglected by their island government and the wider authorities in mainland Tanzania.

It was these neighborhoods that erupted into violence on election day Sunday, then Monday and Tuesday, as news filtered through that armed government troops had apparently abetted vote fraud.

Riot police shipped over from mainland Tanzania fired rubber bullets and tear gas as water-cannon trucks spewing pepper spray tried to calm the stone-throwing crowds.

Although Tanzanian leader Mr. Mkapa has tried to distance himself from the turbulence marring elections on the islands, few among the CUF supportersdoubt he knew skulduggery was planned.

"[Heavily armed police] are under the command of Mkapa, he chairs the party which orchestrated the fraud here, and if he wanted free and fair elections he could have ensured they happened very easily," said Ben Rawlence, a CUF spokesman.

"He has chosen not to do that."

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