Mozambicans voted on Tuesday in an election that could test a fragile two-month-old peace deal between the ruling Frelimo party and its old civil war foe turned opposition rival Renamo.
The presidential, legislative and provincial polls are expected to extend Frelimo’s decades-long rule over the southern African nation set to become one of the world’s major gas exporters.
Renamo is hoping to use electoral changes agreed in the peace pact to win control of its traditional heartlands in central and northern provinces for the first time since the civil war ended in a truce in 1992.
Rights groups and analysts warn there could be unrest if it fails to make the gains.
“Mozambique has chosen peace,” President Filipe Nyusi said after casting his ballot at a school in Maputo. He praised Mozambicans for deciding their destiny through elections and urged people to go to the polls peacefully.
Carlos Alberto, a 22-year-old student waiting to vote wanted to see parliament hold the executive to account and push through promised reforms in education, work, housing and other areas.
“We vote and then nothing happens,” Alberto said. “We need to make changes.”
A corruption scandal over government borrowing hit the economy and damaged Nyusi’s popularity.
A low-level Islamist insurgency in the north, on the doorstep of billion-dollar gas projects developed by oil majors including Exxon and Total, has taken the shine off Nyusi’s presidency and threatens security in the longer term.
Most of Mozambique’s 13 million registered voters were born after Frelimo came to power in 1975, when the country won independence from Portugal.
Renamo fought Frelimo for 16 years from 1977 to 1992 in a Cold War conflict that killed about a million people. It ended in a truce but sporadic violence has flared since – including after Renamo challenged 2014 election results.
Under the peace deal signed in August, provincial governors will be picked by the main party in each province, rather than government in Maputo – an opportunity for Renamo to gain representation.
Factionalism in Renamo and the fading popularity of its leader, Ossufo Momade, could make winning the provinces it would like a tall order.
Should it come back empty handed, further violence could be triggered, Zenaida Machado, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said.
The run-up to the vote was marked by sporadic violence, including killing an election observer and attacks from a breakaway group of Renamo fighters.
A crowd welcoming Nyusi at his final campaign rally in Maputo on Saturday cheered when he promised peace would last.
“Without peace, can we build factories … can we build roads?” Nyusi asked, to cries of “No” from supporters.
Polls were due to close at 6 pm. The law allows 15 days for results to be announced, though they could come sooner.