Zambia’s disputed elections: on claims of binned ballots and “systematic bias”
Official results say Edgar Lungu scraped the presidential election, but the opposition claims that, through manipulation and fraud, the ruling party “effected a coup on Zambia’s democratic process”.
As a successful 42 year old corporate executive, Hakainde Hichilema made a secret pact with himself that he would retire at 47 to pursue his passion for philanthropy. He would quit the rat race and turn his efforts to helping dig boreholes, build animal dip tanks for his local farming community, and develop an educational scholarship scheme he had established for bright under-privileged kids.
But then came the unexpected death in 2006 of Anderson Mazoka, the leader of Zambia’s main opposition United Party for National Development (UPND). With Mazoka’s death, Hichilema’s life took a dramatic turn, eventually leading to his election by the UPND’s rank and file as the party’s new leader.
Today, a decade later, Hichilema, 55, is no longer a rookie politician, having led the UPND into five unsuccessful presidential elections – in 2006, 2008, 2011, 2015, and, most recently, last week.
In these just-concluded elections, Hichilema came up against President Edgar Lungu of the governing Patriotic Front’s (PF) for the second time. The first occasion was in January 2015, in a by-election triggered by the death of former president Michael Sata, in which Lungu won by a little over 1.5%.
This time around, Lungu officially won with 50.35% to Hichilema’s 47.67%, though the opposition has vowed to challenge the outcome in the courts.
Following a bruising and bitterly fought campaign, Hichilema will not just be going back to the drawing board but may be fighting for his political life and the survival of his party.
Lungu will also be keeping busy to ensure thing go his way. A 59-year-old former lawyer, the president is a formidable hard-as-knuckles foe hiding behind an outwardly laid-back and soft-spoken political façade. His rapid rise from lowly deputy minister to Justice Minister, Defence Minister, and finally President last January is testimony to his political tenacity and calculating agility. And given this, it seems Zambia may be entering treacherous political ground in the coming weeks as Hichilema challenges the results. Having served a mere 18 months since his marginal victory in 2015, it is clear that Lungu will leave no stone unturned to secure his return to State House.
“A coup on Zambia’s democratic process”
The road to last week’s polls to choose the president, members of parliament, municipal leaders as well as vote on a constitutional referendum has been riven with accusations of voter manipulation by the PF through violent tactics and a biased electoral campaign.
Zambia’s constitution upholds free and fair elections on paper, but the reality of the process depends on the independence, accountability, efficiency and transparency of the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ). And the ECZ’s management of the election and the confusion surrounding the outcome has called its credibility into question.
Announcing the UPND’s decision to launch a constitutional court petition challenging the poll’s outcome, Hichilema said the PF had “effected a coup on Zambia’s democratic process” in which the will of the people had been changed “in an illegal and undemocratic way”.
“We submitted evidence before the declaration of the results regarding the gross irregularities that have taken place. In any free, fair, transparent and democratic system this would have been enough to prompt a recount in the affected areas. But Zambia no longer operates that way,” he said.
Accusing the ECZ of “taking the decision away from the people” and the PF of “acting with impunity to change the result”, the UPND’s allegations are not without foundation.
Giving weight to these allegations, the European Union observer mission’s preliminary statement concluded that while election day was “generally well-administered and peaceful”, it was “marred by systematic bias in state media and restrictions on the campaign”.
Noting the state broadcaster’s bias in favour of the PF, the EU observed that news coverage on state radio and television “largely excluded other parties, or only reported other parties negatively”.
Furthermore, “provisions and application of the Public Order Act unreasonably restricted freedom of assembly to the benefit of the ruling party,” the EU noted.
In contrast to the EU’s firm language, preliminary statements by the SADC Electoral Observer Mission and Christian Churches Monitoring Group couched their comments in softer diplomatic terms, though they have generally concurred.
“Stakeholders expressed concerns about isolated acts of inter-party violence allegedly perpetrated by members of the two major political parties. The atmosphere of tension and fears of violence were further exacerbated by the open display of makeshift weapons, by party cadres at major rallies,” the SADC group observed.
Meanwhile, although endorsing the election as free and fair and calling on participants to accept the outcome, the Christian Churches organisation noted concerns around “electoral violence; the inability of candidates to freely and fairly campaign; lack of impartiality by the police; unbalanced coverage by state media; gagging of the independent media as seen in the ‘closure’ of The Post newspaper; tendering of ballot papers; and claims of registration of ineligible voters.”
An impartial hearing?
Having turned out in their hundreds of thousands to vote, polling day on August 11 was relatively uneventful and peaceful, with most polling stations recording above average numbers of voters.
Then came the nail biting wait for results, which in the early counts showed the main contenders running neck and neck in most of the more evenly-fought constituencies. As more results continued to trickle in, however, Hichilema was consistently registering percentage gains in PF strongholds, meaning that if the trend continued, he would be headed for victory, especially in the large urban constituencies on the Copperbelt and in Lusaka.
But at this point, the pace at which the ECZ was announcing results seemed to slow down, with figures for Lusaka-based constituencies trickling in at a snail’s pace.
Around this time, the UPND became wary and, following a tip-off that some ballots were missing, one of their mayoral candidates personally went to the polling station in Lusaka’s Kanyama constituency.
There she says that she discovered 14,049 UPND votes were indeed missing. A frantic search followed, reportedly leading to the discovery of the missing votes dumped in a bin. Upon being added to the UPND’s tally, votes for its presidential candidates increased from the recorded figure of 17,985 to 32,024.
Citing these anomalies and other instances of alleged vote rigging where the number of votes cast exceeded the numbers of registered voters, the opposition will lodge its case to the constitutional court.
In addition to these complaints, the UPND says it will also present evidence showing its polling agents were denied access to verification forms. It will argue that the withholding of these was done “in order to enable tampering with the results in favour of the PF”.
In this bid, the opposition will mount the strongest team of constitutional lawyers it can muster, hoping the court will rule in its favour, which would mean a re-run has to be held within a month from the nullification. For his part, Lungu can also be expected to deploy his formidable state machinery in the hope the court will rule in his favour.
However, Lungu may already have the upper hand. This February, he appointed six nominees to the constitutional court, none of which meet the official requirements in terms of experience to serve on the court, and several of whom have close links to the president.
Because of this, there have been suggestions that PF strategists were always most focused on thwarting the possibility of Hichilema winning in the first-round, safe in the knowledge any legal challenge would be heard by friendly judges.
John Mukela is a Zambian journalist and former executive director of the Southern African Media Training Trust (NSJ).