Tensions in Zanzibar as Tanzania readies for tight vote

As Tanzania gears up for what is expected to be the tightest electoral race in the country's history, tensions are rising on the semi-autonomous Zanzibar archipelago.

Campaigning has been largely peaceful, but residents are stockpiling food and water, fearful of possible unrest after the October 25 polls on the Indian Ocean islands, famed for their pristine white-sand beaches and UNESCO-listed architecture.

"I plan to buy enough food items and keep them at home," said Amina Omar Sheik, who lives in Stone Town, the island's historic centre and seat of the current coalition government.

The archipelago's president and vice-president -- ruling as part of a unity government -- will go head-to-head as frontrunners in the race, which will see just over 500,000 registered voters on the islands cast their ballots.

"We enjoy peace and stability under the unity government, but statements made by some politicians, including asking youths to remain on the streets after casting votes, indicate possible violence," Sheik said.

Zanzibar has experienced sectarian and political tensions in recent years -- including several grenade explosions -- with the unrest affecting the islands' key tourist industry.

There have also been wider tensions around Zanzibar's union with the mainland, with some opposition political parties wanting to break ties and return to the independence it briefly enjoyed in early 1964 before merging with Tanganyika.

Union or autonomy?

Zanzibaris consider themselves distinct from mainlanders.

Predominantly Muslim, the population is a cosmopolitan mix of Arabs, Asians and Africans and has been doing a steady trade in spice -- and, for a time, slaves -- for over a thousand years.

Voters will elect the national president, the Zanzibari president and also cast their ballots in parliamentary and local polls.

Favourite to win the national race is John Magufuli of the long-ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). He is hoping to succeed President Jakaya Kikwete, who is stepping down after reaching his constitutional two-term limit.

But Magufuli, 55, is facing a stiff challenge from the main opposition parties who have rallied around ex-prime minister Edward Lowassa, 62. He recently defected from the CCM to the opposition Chadema, heading a coalition of parties.

Zanzibaris are more focused on the race for the president of their islands, with 14 contenders in the race.

Leading candidates are incumbent president Ali Mohamed Shein of the ruling CCM, and current vice-president Seif Sharif Hamad from the opposition Civic United Front (CUF), who are currently sharing power in a unity government.

Key issues on the campaign trail include the release of some 40 Muslim leaders from jail -- some accused of links to Islamist extremists -- as well as the nature of the archipelago's union with the mainland.

The ruling CCM has vowed to maintain the status quo, but the CUF promises to campaign for full autonomy if it wins.

Young supporters clash

CUF's Hamad -- a 71-year-old who is making his fifth bid for the islands' top job -- has said he fears possible violence after clashes between young supporters of the rival parties during campaigning.

"Our fear is that once again there are signs that the ruling party, CCM, is planning to cheat in Zanzibar through a combination of rigging, violence and intimidation," Hamad said in a recent speech.

He says his supporters have been stopped and beaten while putting up campaign posters.

"We have won this election several times since multi-party elections came to Zanzibar in 1995, but in each instance, the democratic wishes of our people have been denied," he claimed.

Shein, 67, a medical doctor, has in turn accused his CUF partners in the unity government of threatening not to accept defeat if they lose.

He has also accused them of issuing misleading campaign statements on matters such as oil and gas exploration contracts, and the status of Zanzibari Muslim leaders jailed on the mainland.

"We have been working together with CUF ministers including Mr Hamad on controlling Zanzibar security -- prompting us to arrest the terror suspects," Shein said in a recent speech.

"How come now they use the issue to campaign?"

As on the mainland, the race in Zanzibar is tight.

The ruling CCM party has dominated politics since modern Tanzania was formed in 1964, and currently has two-thirds of seats in parliament.

But it has been weakened by internal splits and a string of graft scandals, and recently suffered defections of high-profile members to the opposition coalition.

"So far, peace has prevailed ahead of the elections," Zanzibari police chief Hamdan Omar Makame told AFP, with only "few reports" of attacks.

"We have enough security forces and riot equipment to control any possible breach of peace," he said.