DAR ES SALAAM: Presidential hopefuls in Tanzania were holding their final campaign rallies Saturday, a day before East Africa’s most populous country holds general elections, expected to be the tightest in the nation’s history.

Outgoing President Jakaya Kikwete, who is not running having served his constitutional two-term limit, has ordered the police to boost security to ensure voting in the country of some 52 million people passes off peacefully.

“I want to lead the country to development and good welfare,” said John Magufuli of the long-ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) and the favourite to win the national race, in one of his final speeches.

“Everyone deserves a better life irrespective of his or her political inclination.”

But many believe Magufuli, 55, will face a tough challenge from the main opposition parties who have rallied around ex-prime minister Edward Lowassa, 62. He recently defected from the CCM to the opposition Chadema, heading a coalition of parties.

“Let us kick CCM out of office, the regime that has failed the nation for all the 54 years it has been in office,” Lowassa said.

“This is going to be the toughest, but most exciting election in the country’s history,” said veteran politician Pius Msekwa, a former CCM party vice-chairman, and vice chancellor of the University of Dar es Salaam.

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.

“If you lose, accept defeat,” former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, who heads a team of Commonwealth election observers, said this week.

“Prepare to lose gracefully,” Tanzania’s Citizen newspaper appealed to candidates in an editorial this week. “We should learn that there’s always life after elections.”

As well as a presidential race, voters will also be casting ballots in parliamentary and local polls on Sunday, including on the semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar, which will also hold its own presidential elections.

Regional neighbours are watching the race keenly.

“For a taste of political ruckus, the joke went that in Tanzania’s social places, most tuned into Kenyan TV stations... that was until the last bout of electoral contest that climaxes with elections on Sunday,” Kenya’s The Standard newspaper wrote this week.

Both Magufuli and Lowassa have made repeated calls for the preservation of peace and national unity in speeches denouncing tribalism, religious violence and corruption.

Despite impressive economic growth, little has trickled down to the majority and the country remains very poor by regional and international standards, the World Bank says.

On Zanzibar, campaigning has been largely peaceful, but residents are stockpiling food and water, fearful of possible unrest after the polls on the Indian Ocean islands, famed for their pristine white sand beaches and UNESCO-listed architecture.

The archipelago’s president and vice-president — ruling as part of a unity government — will go head-to-head as frontrunners in the race, which will see just over 500,000 registered voters on the islands cast their ballots.

Leading candidates are incumbent president Ali Mohamad Shein of the ruling CCM, and current vice-president Seif Sharif Hamad from the opposition Civic United Front (CUF), who are currently sharing power in a unity government.