Ruling party holds lead in Tanzania election

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Dar es Salaam (AFP) - Tanzania's ruling party presidential hopeful held the lead Wednesday with around half the votes counted in the country's tightest ever election, though several veteran politicians have lost their seats.

With 133 of 264 constituencies having released results on the third day of counting in east Africa's most populous country, John Magafuli of the long-ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) had won 56.51 percent of votes.

His nearest rival in Sunday's presidential vote, Edward Lowassa of the opposition Chadema party, has 41.67 percent, according to official results announced by the National Election Commission (NEC) late Tuesday.

But while the CCM is ahead in presidential race, several key ministers have lost their seats.

The opposition Chadema party has alleged rigging in Sunday's presidential, general and local elections.

But top NEC official Damian Lubuva dismissed the claims, saying the "baseless and unfounded allegations discredit the commission."

Analysts have warned that the unusually tight race could spark tensions, with the opposition providing the first credible challenge to the CCM since the introduction of multi-party democracy in 1995.

Many believe 55-year old Magufuli -- currently minister of works, for which he earned the nickname "The Bulldozer" -- will face a tough challenge from Lowassa, 62.

Lowassa was prime minister from 2005 until his resignation in 2008 over corruption allegations that he denies, and has for years been a CCM loyalist, but on the campaign trail he called for an end to the party's rule.

- Zanzibar tensions -

In Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous archipelago which also voted for its own leader, the main opposition presidential candidate declared himself the winner on Monday, ahead of any official announcement of results.

Police on the Indian Ocean islands fired tear gas to break up crowds, while foreign embassies warned visitors to the popular tourist destination to avoid large crowds.

Security forces on Tuesday surrounded the islands' main tallying and results centre, after opposition challenger Seif Sharif Hamad of the Civic United Front (CUF) repeated warnings that he "will not concede defeat if robbed of my victory."

Troops left the centre later Tuesday, but an AFP reporter in Zanzibar's capital said shots were heard overnight, and that the streets were largely empty on Wednesday, with many shops closed and people saying they were fearful of going out.

Zanzibar's electoral commission chief Ayoub Bakari Hamad called for calm Wednesday, warning that some politicians had been "deliberately interfering" with the tallying process.

The ruling party has effectively held power since Tanzania's independence from Britain in 1961, but has suffered a series of defeats at the parliamentary level in this week's election, with eight ministers and other veteran politicians losing their seats.

Those ousted include the ministers for agriculture, information and investment, as well as the mayor of Dar es Salaam, the country's economic hub.

Counting continues, with final presidential results expected Thursday.

International observers have largely praised the conduct of the vote on Sunday.

"Although there were a few problems in a small number of polling stations, the overall picture was one of millions of people exercising their voting rights in a peaceful environment and demonstrating their commitment to the democratic process," European Union election observer chief Judith Sargentini said.

African Union Commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has praised Tanzania for the conduct of the elections, but also warned candidates to put "their country above all other interests" as results are announced.

Outgoing President Jakaya Kikwete, who is not running having served his constitutional two-term limit, ordered the police to boost security to ensure calm in the country of 52 million people, of whom 22 million were registered to vote.

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