Mozambique may not be the world’s youngest democracy, but its first experience with elections wasn’t until 1994. Since then, the country has only held municipal elections once every five years, making every voting day a crucial exercise in democracy. Mozambique is just about twice the size of California, so our task of monitoring this year’s municipal elections throughout the country was daunting.
My elections assignment: Mocimboa da Praia in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, which borders Tanzania. Mocimboa is about as remote as it gets, so I savored what would be my last real coffee for several days in the airport and then hopped aboard a 2.5 hour flight north. From there, it was a short, six-hour drive on mostly unpaved roads before we arrived at our destination. Mocimboa is a small but wide town of 23,000 people that had been hotly-contested in previous elections, so the goal was to do our part to ensure the process could be deemed free and fair.
As I had feared, our accommodation offered little in the way of air conditioning, but did look out over the beautiful turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean -- an inspiring start to Election Day! We awoke early and drove through labyrinthine dirt passages fenced by thatched huts and small markets before finally arriving at our first polling station. There, we were greeted by eager but orderly crowds of voters. Mocimboa -- and many of the towns in Mozambique's northern provinces -- are majority Muslim, and the women wore ornate and colorful hijabs as they queued in separate lines from male voters.
Voting in Mozambique is a social activity, and the early-morning crowds were talkative and good-natured and we noted the occasional glimpse of civic pride beaming from the eyes of the very old and the very young as they showed off their fingers dripping with fresh purple ink. As the sun climbed higher in mid-morning, however, the mood markedly changed. Lines that had been orderly grew unruly as some voters took advantage of polling stations with low or no walls to cut in front and avoid the heat. Tempers grew short and the police were called in to politely restore order and help re-form the lines.
The crush of morning voters thinned over the day and by the time polls closed at 6:00 p.m., there wasn't a voting soul in sight. We ended the day at the same site where we began -- in a small, dusty classroom with a hole for a door, no windows and no electricity. The young woman in charge shouted enthusiastically that voting was closed at polling station number 02002005 as her colleagues cheered. A small lantern was switched on and polling officials began the painstakingly slow work of counting and scrutinizing each ballot by lantern light.
During this process, reports began to trickle in that the day hadn't gone so smoothly in the rest of the country. Voter fraud was alleged and some polling stations were marked by violence -- a stark reminder that independent electoral observers can play an important role in Mozambique. Mocimboa da Praia, however, remained collegial. Representatives from both major political parties shared flashlights and the occasional joke. When one would-be voter showed up three hours late and asked to cast his ballot, we all laughed. "Come back later," one party representative said. "Yes, next year," said another from the competing party.
The woman in charge of our polling station wrote the names of the candidates on the floor in chalk. She then held each vote up and announced for whom it had been cast before placing it in the corresponding floor pile. There was some lively debate as the party representatives challenged a few of the votes, but each disagreement was settled according to the rules and in collaborative fashion. By midnight, the results had been tallied and the votes sealed. The ruling party had handily won re-election in our polling station, but the next day’s headlines would show a few victories for an emerging opposition party. Under a full moon and an improbably starry sky, we stumbled home and ended what had been a very long day. Mozambique is an evolving democracy, but we left Mocimboa da Praia optimistic that many of the country's citizens are up to the challenge.
Jason Monks serves as an Economics Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Maputo, Mozambique.
Editor's Note: Mozambique held municipal elections in November 2013.