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Elections another step forward after violent past

[Mozambique] Mozambique elections.
The revised constitution will come into effect after the pool in December (Christian Aid)

After delays and confusion, Mozambicans finally get to go to the polls on 19 November to vote in municipal elections.

But in a country where 40 percent of the population still survives on less than one US dollar a day, what do the elections mean to people who have to struggle so hard to make ends meet?

In the bustling "O Mercado do Povo" (the people's market) in the heart of the capital, Maputo, opinions are strong. Most people told IRIN they would vote because it was their right, but nobody expected that their lives would improve under either of the two main parties, FRELIMO, or the former rebel group turned parliamentary opposition, RENAMO.

FRELIMO led the country to independence in 1975 and has been in power ever since. However, throughout the 1980s it was confronted by apartheid South Africa-backed RENAMO in a brutal and ruinous conflict until a ceasefire was signed in 1992, and a new constitution adopted to allow for multiparty elections.

Forty-seven-year-old Mateus Nhamtocue, a father of five children, who was selling spices, rice and cooking oil at the market, has given up on voting. He said he would not vote this time, although he had registered. "If I vote, it is just the same thing; just the same people in power - they are dominating the masses; they are eating and we're not," alleged Nhamtocue. "They told us to vote FRELIMO for a better future; they are seeing a better future, we're not."

Nhamtocue, a war veteran, said he fought in the 16-year civil war with the FRELIMO army, which he joined in 1977. He was only demobilised in 1994. "I suffered almost 20 years - for what? I am now unemployed."

He added bitterly that his brother has also "suffered" after working for years as a migrant worker, along with thousands of other Mozambicans, in what was then East Germany. The 'majermanes', as the former migrants are colloquially known, have been protesting that the government should fully reimburse them for their social security contributions and other benefits. At a demonstration last month, one of the majermanes was shot dead by the police.

Most of the other people in the market were just as cynical as Nhamtocue, but said they would vote again.

Twenty-nine-year-old Sabao Sitoe, a father of three children, said: "It's necessary to vote because I am a citizen of Mozambique. It is my right." But he too added: "My life hasn't changed since I voted last time - it hasn't got any better." He sells dried fish in the market and does little better than break even each month.

Despite the fact that donors praise Mozambique for making strides towards sustainable economic growth - per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has soared by more than 50 percent since 1990 from US $743 to $1,140 - the benefits are not felt by most Mozambicans, especially those living outside the capital. Moreover, an increasing number of households are suffering the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with about 13 percent of the adult population infected with the virus, robbing families of breadwinners.

Yet, in order for development to be effective, the decentralisation process is critical, and hence successful local elections are key. But preparations have been an uphill struggle. Lack of funds and shortages of materials have beset the organisation of the polls from the outset. A $3.7 million pledge by the UN Development Programme did not arrive in time for the registration process, and voting in the 33 municipalities has had to be postponed from 28 October to 19 November.

The general director of Mozambique's Electoral Administration Technical Secretariat (STAE), Antonio Carrasco, told IRIN on Thursday that although the promised funds finally arrived, they were not enough and "the money has finished". He said the STAE needed a further $1.5 million for outstanding payments, including salaries for those monitoring the poll, and for transport and communications.

The country's last local elections in 1998 were also beset with logistical problems and were boycotted by RENAMO. However, RENAMO spokesman Issufu Quitiino told IRIN he was "more or less satisfied, because at least this time RENAMO has representation on the CNE [National Elections Commission] and STAE".

The local elections will be followed by the country's third general elections in early 2004. FRELIMO has named its secretary-general, Armando Guebuza, as its new candidate, with President Joachim Chissano stepping down after two consecutive terms in office. RENAMO leader, Afonso Dhlakama, will remain his party's flag bearer.

The fact that RENAMO is participating in both the local and general elections is reassuring for the stability of the country. Despite political tensions, peace has reigned for 11 years since the end of a brutal war that claimed countless lives, uprooted millions from their homes, ruined the rural economy and destroyed much of the country's infrastructure.

Observers will add credence to the election results. The CNE announced it would accredit national and foreign observers for the municipal elections this week. CNE spokesperson Filipe Mandlate told reporters that the Southern African Development Community, the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries, Finland, Japan, and Russia are among the organisations and countries that have said they plan to send observers.

Thirty-three-year-old Fatima Zacharias, a mother of two children, said she had voted in the two previous general elections and the 1998 local elections, and intends voting again this time. Although she too says that her profits from selling coconuts, peanuts and dried prawns are minimal, "I will vote. I will not change who I vote for."

Like many others in O Mercado do Povo, she lives in a makeshift home made of cane. Growing up during the war in Homoine, in the southern province of Inhambane, meant that Zacharias was constantly fleeing attacks and could only attend three years of school. She does not know how to read and write.

"Most of my family was killed during the 'Homoine massacre' of 1987. I can't even count how many members of my family were killed. We were wiped out. I am living in poverty now, but at least my children can go to school to have a better future, and we're living in peace. The elections are the only way forward," she said.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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