A constitutional crisis is likely to grip Tanzania, East Africa’s largest country, if the opposition does not call off its bluff of boycotting elections scheduled for November 23 as advised by the influential local Catholic church.

The main opposition party CHADEMA, or ‘Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo’ which is Swahili for ‘Party for Democracy and Progress’ including six other opposition parties have called for a boycott, citing irregularities in the exercise including an uneven playing ground favouring the 42-year-old Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), the ruling political organization in Tanzania and the longest-reigning party in Africa.

By November 6, CHADEMA points out that more than three-quarters of opposition nominees for the polls had been disqualified by the supervisory authority for frivolous reasons including being illiterate, having no fixed abode, and for being ‘drunks’.

Other nominees had found registration offices closed when they tried to apply, or discovered that the application forms they submitted had been tampered with to reflect non-existent ‘errors’.

While police have broken up opposition gatherings and shut down CHADEMA meetings, the party said.

But the influential Catholic church, which has the largest bloc of Christian faithful’s – accounting for 30% of the 56 million people – in a country that embraced political pluralism in February 1992, has urged those who “uphold Catholic values” not to boycott elections.

With President of the Tanzanian Episcopal Conference, Archbishop Gervas Nyaisonga saying in early November, the panacea to the political disputes besetting the country presently lay with all sides of the political divide working together instead of pulling in different directions.

For now, the opposition is factious, as a coalition of fringe parties from the grouping is opposed to the boycott and have sought moral succour from a Swahili proverb that states: “Mwenye njaa hawezi kususia chakula,” which translates to “a hungry person cannot boycott food.”

However, should the electorate notice calls by the core opposition front this would mark an unprecedented act in a country that has witnessed a gradual creeping in of autocracy beginning November 2015 when John Magufuli, 60, was sworn in as the nation’s fifth President.

“Our party believes it is wiser not to support such electoral cheating. To continue to participate in elections of this kind is to legitimize illegality,” said CHADEMA President Freeman Mbowe, this mid-November following an extraordinary meeting of its leadership.

Mbowe said several CHADEMA candidates had been outright disqualified by electoral officials from running in the nationwide November 24 polls to choose local government leaders.

“Magufuli and his party are afraid. We are not going to participate in this charade,” Mbowe said.

Winners of the local polls are expected to form the political backbone for campaigning ahead of general elections slated for 2020. The poll will elect ward councillors and local government leaders and is seen as a litmus test ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.

The Tanzania constitution permits a limit of two, five-year terms and with Magufuli having been elected for the first time in October 2015, he will be seeking re-election in 2020.

This April however, Livingstone Lusinde, an MP affiliated to the CCM party proposed to parliament that the country should skip the presidential election and allow Magufuli to remain power until 2025, with only civic and legislative elections taking place.

‘‘It is costly to hold presidential election, and as we all understand, no one can defeat president Magufuli,’‘ Lusinde said.

While the president has not addressed the issue of not holding presidential elections in 2020, he has intermittently rejected calls from some of his supporters to extend his rule beyond the constitutional limit of two, five-year terms, bucking a trend in the region.

Several leaders including Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza have all tinkered with or defied their constitutions to extend their rule.

“It’s impossible. I will respect the constitution,” Magufuli told a public rally in the coastal Tanzanian town of Tanga after a member of parliament from the ruling CCM party called for an extension of his rule to at least 20 years.

“I have sworn to defend the constitution…I shall play my part and pass on the leadership reins to the next president when the time comes.”

Tanzania, one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most stable democracies, has held five relatively peaceful multi-party elections since 1995, all won by the ruling party.

Some opposition leaders say there is a shadow campaign being carried out by Magufuli’s supporters to find ways of prolonging his rule beyond the two terms.

For instance, former president, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, from the ruling CCM party, who himself served only terms in 1985-1995, first publicly raised the idea in June 2017.

“If it wasn’t for term limits, I would have suggested that Magufuli should be our president for eternity,” Mwinyi told a cheering crowd in Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam at the time.

Nicknamed “the Bulldozer” for his strict leadership style, the Economist newspaper had this to say about him.

“Mr. Magufuli is fast transforming Tanzania from a flawed democracy into one of Africa’s more brutal dictatorships. It is a lesson in how easily weak institutions can be hijacked and how quickly democratic progress can be undone,” the paper wrote in May 2018.

While Roland Ebole, a researcher with Amnesty International, told AFP in Nairobi this October that “Tanzania’s really going down.”

Tanzanian opposition figure and critic of Magufuli, Tundu Lissu was shot 16 times at home in Dodoma, the country’s administrative capital, after participating in a parliamentary session by unknown assailants on September 2017.

Currently recuperating in a Belgium hospital, Lissu has been warned that he will be killed if he returns home to challenge Magufuli after saying that he is “more than ready” to run for the presidency of Tanzania in 2020 if his party wants him to.

And in May, Mdude Nyagali, an opposition activist and a cardholder of the CHADEMA party was found beaten and unconscious at a village in the country’s southern highlands five days after unidentified people abducted him.

In an interview with the BBC, Lissu said: “Politics, particularly our kind of politics, is dangerous. For 25 years, we were used to peaceful politics; we were used to politics where your argument was answered by counter-arguments.

“Now our arguments are answered not by counter-arguments, but by a hail of gunfire. It has become a place where a journalist is abducted and they disappear.

“It has become a place where people are murdered, they are shot dead, their hands and feet are tied and they are dumped into the sea and washed onto the beaches. We have become no different from those odious military dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s.”

Selemani Jafo, the minister for local government, insists the elections scheduled for November 24 will not be put off.

“We’ve learned via the media that some political parties have decided to boycott the civic polls scheduled for November 24 but we’ll not cancel the elections, “he told Journalists in a presser at Dandoma this November nine.

For now, the political situation in Tanzania is fluid but one thing is clear: President Magufuli is unrelenting in his ambition of seeing the CCM maintain its position as the ruling party.