Sun, Oct 30, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Normally peaceful Zanzibar tense before elections

BELOW THE SURFACE The lead-up to elections has been fraught with violence, leading many Zanzibaris to view the polls as Western-style democracy's last chance

AP , ZANZIBAR, TANZANIA

A Zanzibari woman rests in the courtyard of a poor household in Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania, on Friday, next to electoral posters of the ruling Revolutionary Party. Elections set to be held this weekend on mainland Tanzania have been postponed until Dec. 18 due to the death of an opposition vice-presidential candidate, the national electoral board announced late on Thursday. Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa appealed for calm on Zanzibar as voters on the volatile archipelago got set for weekend elections amid heightened fears of political violence.

PHOTO: AFP

On the narrow streets of Zanzibar, women dress in bright African cloth, pastel Indian tunics and black head-to-toe veils, reflecting the multiculturalism that has thrived on these islands for centuries.

It is a picture of peaceful coexistence, the norm in this archipelago. But months of violence in the lead-up to weekend elections are proof of political, racial and religious tensions below the surface.

This year's vote has greater significance than ever before, with many Zanzibaris viewing the balloting as Western-style democracy's last chance.

Two previous elections were seen as deeply flawed by violence and fraud, and a third in that mold will be offered by radicals as proof Islam is the only answer to the island's problems.

"Western democracy has not worked in Zanzibar," said Mussa Ame Mussa, a leader in Zanzibar's Islamic Propagation Organization.

Mussa says his group is merely observing the elections and stays out of politics.

But he was recently arrested and charged with making radical speeches criticizing the government. He called for the formation of Islamic parties, banned in Zanzibar under the current constitution.

More than 90 percent of the people of Zanzibar, a semiautonomous part of Tanzania, are Muslim. Overall, Tanzania's population of 36 million is about 44 percent Christian and 34 percent Muslim.

Most Zanzibaris follow a very gentle form of Sufi Islam. The more fundamentalist sects have always had a hard time taking hold here.

Nevertheless, the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party has always used the specter of radical Islam in elections campaigns, using slogans such as "Don't vote for the beard" to imply that voting for the bearded Hamad is a vote for radicals.

"I feel there is that threat" of radical Islam, said opposition leader Seif Shariff Hamad, the presidential candidate for the Civic United Front.

"Especially in areas where the people are poor, desperate, where there is no hope, there you will find these youths who will be influenced by these radical forces," he said.

Hamad's Civic United Front also plays the religion card. During a rally on Thursday, its director of elections, Ayub Mohammed, accused the ruling party of using a "Jewish witchcraft" to win the election.

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