Mozambique goes to the polls tomorrow. President Felipe Nyusi is running for re-election and, for the first time, provincial governors will be directly elected rather than appointed by the president. The campaign has been fraught and accusations of irregular behaviour have mounted up, primarily against the ruling party, Frelimo.

Last Monday, 7 October, Anastacio Matavele was leaving a training workshop for election monitors in Xai-Xai, the capital of Gaza Province, when he was gunned down in his car. Matavele was the head of the local election observer mission, and it seems likely that his murder was linked to a voter registration scandal. In August, the National Elections Commission (CNE) said it had registered 1,166,011 voters in Gaza. The head of the National Statistics Institute, Rosario Fernandes, pointed out that there were only 836,581 voting age adults in the province. President Nyusi forced Fernandes to resign; the CNE rejected requests to audit Gaza’s electoral roll.

Frelimo, in one guise or another, has ruled Mozambique since independence from Portugal. Renamo, the main opposition party, was formed out of the right-wing rebel forces, backed by Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa, that fought against Frelimo in the Civil War from 1977 to 1992. In a fair and free vote, it stands a chance of winning governorships in some central and northern provinces. The Democratic Movement of Mozambique, which broke away from Renamo ten years ago, has a small support base but could still erode Frelimo’s majority in the Assembly.

If, that is, ballots are honestly recorded. Around the country, the accreditation of election observers has been a shambles: provincial election commissions have not yet approved more than 3500 monitors. The situation is especially bad in Nampula and Zambezia provinces which have high opposition support.

In Gaza, which overwhelmingly votes for the ruling party, the 300,000 ghost voters remain on the register. The only way to make sure they don’t vote is to watch the polling stations carefully. Matavele’s murder seems intended to make sure that won’t happen, by removing one prominent observer and deterring others.

Assassination isn’t a new tactic in Mozambican politics: Carlos Cardoso, an investigative journalist, was killed in 2000, and António Siba-Siba Macuácua, an economist and whistleblower, in 2001; both men were investigating corruption at a national bank that implicated President Joaquim Chissano’s son. But the political murder rate has increased in recent years. Since 2014 there have been at least 23 assassinations (or assassination attempts). Most of the victims have been members of Renamo, but they also include lawyers, judges, academics and journalists.

Mozambique used to be notable for the way its increasingly authoritarian democracy had not resorted to violent tactics to repress civil society and new opposition threats. Instead, Frelimo – which long ago shed its Marxist origins – had relied on judicial capture and patronage to sustain its support. But internal conflict and greed led to corruption scandals, and corruption scandals led to a loss of legitimacy. Frelimo lost 47 Assembly seats in the 2014 election, nearly a fifth of the chamber. Since then, the party has been dogged by problems including the $2 billion ‘hidden loans’ scandal, and an armed insurgency in the province of Cabo Delgado. The party’s formidable control has been slipping, internal division has been rising, and some in the party have turned to more heavy-handed tactics.

Gilles Cistac, a lawyer and lecturer, was shot in 2015; José Macuana, a political analyst, was kidnapped and shot in the legs in 2016; Mahamudo Amurane, the Mayor of Nampula, was assassinated in October 2017; Ericino de Salema, a journalist, was kidnapped and beaten in 2018. The identity of their attackers is still unknown. Matavele’s killers, however, were clumsy. They crashed their car: two died at the scene; two, lightly injured, were arrested; and one fled. Witnesses identified the black uniforms of the riot police Special Operations Group in the wreckage. The state has since admitted that Matavele was murdered by police officers.

More than 40 people have died in the election campaign so far – most of them, like Matavele’s attackers, in car crashes. The worst accidents have occurred on the way to and from Frelimo rallies. Last month, ten people died and nearly a hundred were injured in a stampede at a stadium where President Nyusi had just finished giving a speech.

The stakes tomorrow are high. Nyusi will almost certainly retain the presidency, but the race is closer than he would like and campaigning has been fierce. Party organisers have been swelling the numbers at rallies by trucking in poor Mozambicans from remote villages. Since the Civil War ended, the country has enjoyed average GDP growth of more than 5 per cent a year, but growth hasn’t been matched by development. The results of ‘economic progress’ are hard to see outside the capital and a few industrial centres: in most of the country the roads are terrible, driving licences can be bought, and clinics are few and far between. In the last month, at least three rent-a-crowd trucks have overturned, throwing their passengers onto the ground as if they were disposable goods.