Crucial regional elections turned violent Sunday as police and the ruling party’s militia engaged in running clashes with opposition supporters in the streets of the main town in semiautonomous Zanzibar.
Police fired tear gas and water cannons while party militiamen beat suspected government opponents on the edges of the old city, known as Stone Town. More than a dozen people were injured, hospital officials said.
The violence came as voters turned out in heavy numbers to choose between the socialists who have ruled the Indian Ocean archipelago for nearly 40 years and an opposition group promising wholesale economic reforms. Results were not expected until later in the week.
Coming after a bitterly contested campaign marred by frequent violence, the election was seen by many here as a test of whether Western-style democracy can work in this devoutly Muslim part of East Africa. The last two elections also were tainted by violence and charges of fraud.
Clashes erupted Sunday after police and the ruling party tried to truck in hundreds of people to vote at polling stations against the objections of local residents. Voting for the region’s councilors, legislators and president is based on residency.
“With my own eyes I’ve seen these people being ferried from the countryside into town. I couldn’t believe it,” said Nassor Saif, the opposition’s representative on the electoral commission.
Some of the disputed voters were listed on voter registers, which have been disputed since the elections were scheduled. When asked by journalists where they were came from, the trucked-in voters covered their faces and refused to answer.
Riot police fired live ammunition into the air and shot tear gas down Stone Town’s narrow alleys to chase away neighborhood men who threatened violence. Stone Town is a stronghold of the opposition Civic United Front.
“This is a clear indication that CUF has regrettably paid no heed to its political responsibility in a democratic society,” said Saled Ferouz, deputy secretary-general of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party. “We condemn the actions of the opposition party.”
Disputes over voter lists occurred around polling stations across Zanzibar, which is a semiautonomous region of Tanzania.
When protesters refused to disperse, police used high-pressure nozzles mounted on heavy trucks to spray water laced with tear gas. The water cannons sprayed indiscriminately and hit international journalists watching the violence.
Journalists also saw uniformed members of the ruling party’s militia, the Green Guard, severely beat at least one man suspected of being an opposition supporter.
Regional Police Chief George Kiziguto refused to answer any questions.
Despite the unrest, polls stayed open the allotted time. Most stations reported voter turnout of at least 80 percent. Some 507,000 people were eligible to vote.
Many people considered the elections key to the future of democracy in Zanzibar, following polls in 1995 and 2000 that also were marred by violence and fraud. Radicals could cite a third flawed ballot as proof that an Islamic government is the only answer to the island’s problems.
Associated Press reporters visited more than a dozen polling stations, and opposition party officials complained about administrative problems along with disputes over the voter register. Ruling party agents did not report any problems.
Zanzibar President Amani Karume predicted his party would retain control after votes were counted.
“We believe we have the numbers,” he said. “We don’t expect to lose.”
Karume’s party has ruled since a 1964 revolution drove out the Sultan of Oman and made his father the first president of Zanzibar. That government united the archipelago with Tanganyika on the mainland to create Tanzania and established a socialist system with state-run industries.
Seif Shariff Hamad, leader of the Civic United Front, said the opposition should win this election, as it claimed to have done the previous two ballots.
But he complained that most polling stations did not have the proper paperwork to report vote results and warned that could let the government falsify the outcome.
“There were a lot of irregularities that make us very much worried that this election will not be free and fair,” Hamad told reporters.