BEIRA, Mozambique – The face of President Filipe Nyusi beams from flags billowing across Mozambique’s city of Beira, where T-shirts and posters colour the streets with his Frelimo party’s signature red in what is usually an opposition stronghold.
Frelimo’s show of force ahead of presidential, provincial and legislative elections on Oct. 15 could signal problems for the main opposition party Renamo, and also threaten a peace agreement signed between the two civil war rivals in August.
While Nyusi is all but certain to be re-elected president, the peace deal has given Renamo hope of winning more political power in a country dominated by Frelimo since the southern African country’s independence from Portugal in 1975.
Under the deal, provincial governors will now be picked by the main party in each province, rather than the government in Maputo, and Renamo is banking on traditional provincial strongholds such as Sofala to gain influence.
“The biggest threat to the peace process is if Renamo does not deliver a good number of provinces,” said Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at Chatham House.
The elections come at a difficult time for Mozambique, a poor country with a population of 30 million.
Cities such as Beira were smashed by two devastating cyclones this year and there is a festering Islamist insurgency in the north, which is right on the doorstop of blockbuster projects to develop vast natural gas reserves.
The projects led by oil giants such as Exxon Mobil Corp and Total are expected to attract investment of $50 billion, or four times the size of Mozambique’s economy, and the expected gas bonanza has raised the electoral stakes.
Renamo fought Frelimo for 16 years from 1977 to 1992 in a Cold War conflict that killed about one million people. It ended in a truce but sporadic violence has flared in the years since – including after Renamo challenged election results in 2014.
The problem for Renamo in places such as Beira, the capital of Sofala province, is that Frelimo, as well as the smaller Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM), are muscling in on its traditional turf.
Nyusi’s credibility has been knocked by the insurgency and a graft scandal that sank the economy, but Frelimo holds numerous districts in Sofala following local elections last year, and dozens of people told Reuters the ruling party had their vote.
Frelimo spokesman Caifadine Manasse said it had consolidated the rule of law and tackled graft.
Chatham House’s Vines said if Renamo wins three or four of Mozambique’s 10 provinces in next week’s vote, that should be sufficient to placate its supporters.
But any fewer and a recent bout of party infighting over the peace deal could worsen. Renamo’s leadership could lose control of sections of the party, threatening commitment to the agreement or even a return to targeted violence, he said.
Breakaway Renamo fighters dissatisfied with the pact have already staged attacks. They want elections postponed and for Renamo’s new leader, Ossufo Momade, to resign.
Governors run local services and have a degree of power over spending, state-owned land and council jobs. Though some critics say a new position – the government-appointed provincial secretary of state – will still hold most of the power.