Zambia gears up for unsettlingly close elections
Last year’s election was won by a margin of 27,000 votes. With both leading candidates having a lot to lose, this Thursday’s could be just as close.
Across much of Zambia, a tense atmosphere prevails ahead of the country’s fifth elections in ten years. The ruling Patriotic Front (PF) – in power for only one term – has pulled out all the stops, covering the country’s biggest cities with enormous billboards and handing out countless branded t-shirts, caps, fedora hats and hooded jumpers.
Youths dressed in ruling party regalia lounge on street corners in Lusaka, and in some areas of the capital, fights between supporters of different parties have erupted – presaging the closely-fought electoral contest to be held on 11 August. In this historically peaceful nation, concerns are being raised repeatedly about the potential for election-related violence as the campaigns ramp up their rhetoric to drive up voter turnout.
Although there are nine candidates standing in the presidential race, this is really a competition between two juggernauts – the ruling Patriotic Front (PF), led by President Edgar Lungu; and the recently-ascendant United Party for National Development (UPND) and its candidate Hakainde Hichilema.
These two figures faced off in January 2015’s presidential by-election, which was triggered by the death of President Michael Sata. In that contest, the ruling party won by a wafer-thin margin of 27,000 votes. This Thursday’s vote looks like it could be just as close.
Ethnic and regional considerations
The results of the election 18 months ago followed a clear regional pattern. Northern Zambia largely voted for the ruling PF (albeit in relatively low numbers), while the South came out strongly to vote for the UPND. But these trends may not hold to the same degree this time around. While the South and West are likely to vote overwhelmingly for the UPND, the PF’s support in the North is no longer so assured.
In 2011, the PF came to power under President Sata, a populist Bemba-speaking leader who hailed from the North but who was able to galvanise the urban poor and capitalise on anti-government sentiment. By contrast, Lungu hails from the East, but is widely seen as an urbanite who cut his teeth in Lusaka.
In order to shore up support in the East in 2015, Lungu relied heavily on the backing of former president Rupiah Banda of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). But in 2016, Banda has been much less visible on the PF campaign trail, up until the final week. The PF has also recruited MMD’s Felix Mutati to campaign in the North and East, but it is unclear how much support the former ruling party will be able to muster.
In what many analysts see as a strategic gaffe, Lungu also chose a Westerner – 77-year-old Vice President Inonge Wina – as his running mate in 2016, leaving its traditional Northern Bemba-speaking constituency without a champion in the party’s upper echelons.
For its part, the UPND has worked hard to challenge the suggestion that they can only attract votes in the South and has stacked its line-up with prominent Northerners including: former PF Defence Minister Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba (popularly known as GBM), Mutale Nalumango, Patrick Mucheleka, MMD’s Nevers Mumba, and Sata’s son and nephew Mulenga Sata and Miles Sampa.
The UPND has also attracted key former political heavyweights such as: former PF Acting President Guy Scott; his wife Charlotte Scott, who is running for the Lusaka Central parliamentary seat; and former MMD First Lady Maureen Mwanawasa, who has her sights set on the position of Lusaka Mayor.
These dynamics will be important this Thursday, but ethnicity is just one dimension of mobilising voters, and the Zambian electorate has shown itself to be particularly adept at ignoring or subverting ethnic appeals in previous elections. Many other issues will be crucial in determining people’s choice at the ballot box.
The economy and the big issues
In the 2015 elections, the PF was in a weak position. The party was divided after a bitter leadership battle, which left Lungu unable to make effective use of state and party resources. Meanwhile, the election came at a bad time when government had yet to deliver on important promises such as the implementation of the Barotseland Agreement, the installation of the Bemba paramount chief, and the creation of a new constitution.
In addition, the government had been unable to pay farmers for maize, had placed an unpopular freeze on government hiring and wage increases, and had fired striking nurses. These issues were enough to convince nearly half of the urban population to vote for the opposition.
After the election, the Zambian economy took further blows. Fluctuations in the price of copper – the country’s mainstay – led the kwacha to be the world’s third-worst performer in 2015 as it dropped 42% against the dollar. In late-2015, regional drought and mismanagement of riverine resources led to rolling blackouts and the importation of expensive foreign electricity. And mining companies threatened closures and suspensions, leading the country’s Copperbelt heartland to shed approximately 10,000 jobs. Zambia’s economic growth slowed to 3% from 7% in 2014 and the cost of living soared.
The economy thus took a serious beating, though in the past few months, the situation seems to have improved. Electricity has temporarily returned, the government has promised more copper production and thus more jobs on the Copperbelt, fuel shortages have dissipated, and the kwacha has stabilised. Furthermore, the government has introduced a wide-ranging constitutional amendment act, the wage freeze has expired, the fired nurses have been reinstated, the Bemba chief has been installed, and the salaries of traditional leaders have been raised three-fold in order to shore up rural support.
However, there are suspicions that in this campaign, the PF has been spending well beyond its means. In late July, a recording surfaced between the finance minister and PF secretary-general which appeared to suggest that the party was using state resources for its campaign. And if the government spends more than it has, the PF may be mortgaging the country’s future on this election, postponing the inevitable hardships this will bring for ordinary Zambians in the aftermath.
In this election, it seems the urban vote will be particularly critical. The two most urbanised provinces – Lusaka and the Copperbelt – account for nearly one-third of all registered voters, and these areas have been most affected by political violence by members of both parties.
It is difficult to predict which way these areas will vote. On the one hand, the PF’s control over urban space and collection of informal rents in areas such as bus stands, market stalls and water provision points have left some urban citizens in a more precarious position. The urban poor have also been most affected by the rapid rate of inflation – at approximately 20% – and drastic rise in the price of maize.
On the other hand, the ruling party is hoping its overwhelming presence in urban space and its expensive urban infrastructure projects will carry the day. Its key campaign slogan is Sonta, which is short for the Bemba phrase “sonta apo wabomba”, meaning “look what we’ve done”.
This infrastructure, however, has come at a huge cost, with Zambia’s external debt climbing from $3.6 billion in 2012 to $7.6 billion by June 2016. This will certainly prompt painful interventions from the IMF and World Bank, but the PF has been at pains to defer this until after the election.
Tapping into this, Hichilema is riding on a narrative of how the PF has bankrupted the economy and playing up his business acumen in an attempt to garner votes from the disaffected groups. His campaign slogan is “HH will fix it”.
Violence and irregularities
In its campaign, the UPND has faced significant difficulties. Rally and flight permits have been denied, posters and billboards have been torn down, and ruling party youths have disrupted campaign activities. The UPND’s vice-presidential candidate has been particularly targeted. Since 2015, he has been arrested numerous times, and last month, his home was teargassed and raided while his wife, children and grandchildren were inside.
As of June, the government has also shut down The Post newspaper, the country’s only independent paper, on charges that it owes $6.3 million in taxes. This decision was roundly condemned by activists, the opposition and foreign embassies. The Post has been a crucial player in uncovering maladministration, corruption and government incompetence, including reports in 2016 of electoral malpractice and the registration of foreign voters.
Despite a number of key rulings, the Post has not been allowed to reopen and publish freely. This means the state media is left with a monopoly of the print media market and has used its free reign to undertake constant attacks against the opposition, violating ethical standards of journalism, and calling the fairness of the electoral environment into question.
Last month, the UPND’s Lusaka campaign centre was also raided by police, effectively shutting it down and undermining its ability to mount a substantive challenge in the capital. Furthermore, on 8 July, an opposition supporter was killed by police in Lusaka, leading to a ten-day suspension of all campaign activities in the capital.
A diplomatic source revealed to African Arguments that several members of both the opposition and the ruling party have died during the campaign. In addition, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project which uses media reports to track conflict patterns has counted more than 50 episodes of electoral violence in the country between January and July. The levels of violence being seen are unprecedented for Zambia. The fear, uncertainty and lack of party control over cadres have produced a situation in which there has been a mutual escalation of violence amidst acts of recrimination and retribution. For this reason, it seems that diplomatic missions, donors and electoral observers are more concerned about the possibility of violence than the fairness of the vote.
Under the new run-off system, a candidate needs to achieve 50%+1 of the vote in order to win. If no nominee achieves this, a second round will be held. The race as it stands if far too close to call, but if the opposition loses, it may well take to the streets to voice its dissent, especially given the widespread stories of electoral malpractice. If the ruling party loses, it is unclear how it might react, though the long history of the neutrality of Zambia’s security forces may prevent violent spillovers.
For Edgar Lungu and his coterie, this is an election that they can’t afford to lose, not least for the fear that they could face criminal prosecution over allegations of corruption. For Hakainde Hichilema, this could be the closest he will ever get to the presidency and is likely to be his last chance.
With so many variables and so much to lose on both sides, this Thursday promises a hotly contested election that could be dangerously close.
Nicole Beardsworth is a South African political analyst and doctoral candidate at the University of Warwick.