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KAMPALA, Uganda – Tanzanians vote Sunday in elections that could end the dominance of the ruling party, which has held power for decades but faces a united opposition buoyed by growing discontent over official corruption.
The apparent strength of a united opposition, led by former Prime Minister Edward Lowassa, has also fueled fears of possible violence in a country that has avoided the bloody unrest experienced among its neighbors in Africa's Great Lakes region.
Lowassa defected from the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party earlier this year after it refused to make him its presidential candidate, and he captured national attention when he joined the opposition party Chama Cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo, known as Chadema. Lowassa now heads the four main opposition parties hoping to oust the party of Tanzania's revered founding leader Julius Nyerere.
Lowassa's massive rallies across the country have led some analysts to believe he poses a serious threat to the ruling party, whose grip on power has never before been so seriously threatened.
"The competition's been stiff. Even at this moment it's too early to say who will win," said Benson Bana, a political science lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam. "Lowassa has mounted a good campaign. He will garner a good number of votes but I don't know if they will sufficient for him to be declared president."
Lowassa, 62, was prime minister in President Jakaya Kikwete's government from 2005 to 2008, but was forced to resign by a corruption scandal that continues to color his career despite his denials. He has a reputation as a fabulously wealthy politician, apparently one of the reasons why the ruling party rejected him as its presidential candidate.
The ruling party's eventual choice, Works Minister John Magufuli, 55, is widely seen as a corruption-free, effective public servant who could improve the ruling party's image in the eyes of ordinary people fed up with state graft. "He is credible," said Bana.
In Zanzibar, which is run by a semi-autonomous government, the ruling party faces strong opposition from the Civic United Front, whose leaders promise reduced taxes and free education. The party narrowly lost control of the island in the previous election.
"We expect to win by majority this time, and if that dream comes true we will offer our people the best social services," said Omar Ali Shehe, the Civic United Front's director of elections.
Amid concerns over possible chaos, outgoing president Kikwete urges calm, saying Tanzania's security forces will work to keep the peace.
There are concerns that some opposition groups may be training and arming their own militias, said Jeffrey Smith, director of Africa policy for the Washington D.C.-based group Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.
"The important thing to remember here is that Tanzanians take great pride in being a bright spot, and importantly, a stable democracy, in a region that is otherwise plagued by autocratic and repressive regimes," said Smith. "However, the prospect of electoral violence looms heavy on the minds of many."
Associated Press reporter Ali Sultan in Zanzibar contributed to this report.