Zambia: In a fair election, Lungu can’t win. In an unfair one, he can’t lose
The incumbent is deeply unpopular, but he has a range of strategies up his sleeve that he is hoping will allow him to hang on to power.
Voters in Zambia head to the ballot box on 12 August to choose a president from 16 candidates, making this the most heavily contested election in the country’s history. The leading contenders are incumbent Edgar Lungu of the governing Patriotic Front (PF) and Hakainde Hichilema of the main opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) who, between them, won 98% of the presidential vote in 2016.
Although the Socialist Party’s Fred M’membe is expected to fare better than the rest, the election may have come too soon for the celebrated former newspaper editor who founded the left leaning political alternative in March 2018 and has since traversed the country slating both the PF and the UPND in his attempts to build a power base. Despite having a progressive manifesto that pledges to “reverse Zambia’s slide into privatisation and de-industrialisation” – social processes that have damaged social life and created a sense of despondency among ordinary Zambians – the prospect of M’membe making any more than a token showing in the presidential race is tiny. He may, however, do enough to prevent either frontrunner obtaining 50% in the first round, which would mean a run-off would have to take place within 37 days.
Zambians in the mood for political change
The general mood across the country points to the sort of nervous euphoria for change last witnessed in 1991, when the then opposition Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) defeated the United National Independence Party, the party of Kenneth Kaunda which had ruled since independence. This feeling is driven mainly by voters’ outright opposition to Lungu rather than support for Hichilema. In the capital Lusaka and the Copperbelt – two crucial urban constituencies that previously voted PF but are likely to swing to the opposition – the desire for change can be seen in the sometimes-hostile reception that PF campaigners have received. “I wonder if people need extra glasses to see what PF has done over the last ten years”, complained Lungu’s running mate Nkandu Luo on 29 July when campaigning in North-western Province.
While campaigning on the influential Copperbelt Province on 7 August, Lungu vowed to arrest Hichilema if re-elected for alleged corruption during Zambia’s privatisation of the mines in the 1990s. At the time, Hichilema worked for a private audit firm that was hired by the government to evaluate the value of state assets to be sold. Lungu claims Copperbelt residents are poor today because Hichilema took advantage of the privatisation process to enrich himself instead of negotiating better deals for the government. Critics argue that if the president had tangible evidence, he would have had the opposition leader arrested and prosecuted long ago. Lungu hopes that this threat will, however, shore up his waning support among mineworkers and discredit his opponent ahead in the key constituency.
The desire for change is also evident in the size of crowds that Hichilema has been able to attract both before and after the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) suspended physical campaign meetings in June to curb the spread of COVID-19. The crowd that turned up at Hichilema’s nomination in Lusaka, for instance, was so huge that the PF accused the UPND of having hired people from across the country for the occasion. Even in Eastern Province, previously considered Lungu’s fortress, thousands turned up for Hichilema’s national face mask distribution exercise – a loophole to get around restrictions on rallies first used by Lungu before the opposition also adopted the strategy. If this expression of support translates into votes, the incumbent is in trouble.
Why the people want change
There are several factors behind the president’s unpopularity. One is the high cost of living, thanks to a faltering economy. According to the latest data on chronic poverty in Zambia from the Overseas Development Institute and Poverty Action, the number of adults who cannot afford to have more than one meal a day has risen to 40% under Lungu’s rule.
A second is the high levels of income inequality. Despite being a lower middle-income country, latest World Bank records show that nearly 60% of Zambia’s 18.8 million people earn below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day (compared to 41% across Sub-Saharan Africa). While poverty is endemic, several PF leaders have continued to accumulate and display obscene or grotesque wealth in ways that have alienated the governing party from many Zambians.
The third is the country’s staggering debt, which, alongside the Lungu administration’s demonstrated lack of commitment to fixing its debt crisis through better fiscal management, has undermined the government’s capacity to improve service delivery, invest in social sectors, and reduce high unemployment. When the PF won power in September 2011, Zambia’s external debt stood at $1.9 billion. By December 2020, it had risen to $12.74 billion. While the government insists that this money has been invested in building roads and infrastructure, the opposition argues that much of it has been lost to corruption, another central concern of many voters which, according to the annual trends reports of the Financial Intelligence Centre, has worsened under Lungu’s watch. The lack of service delivery has been felt most notably in the health sector, where the effects of the coronavirus pandemic have exacerbated the crisis.
The fourth is the violent behaviour of the PF cadres who control the markets and bus stations. Lungu’s reluctance to stop their activities has emboldened their conduct, undermined the authority of the police, and left the public greatly exposed.
The fifth is the lack of policy consistency including in the crucial mining industry, Zambia’s major export earner. In addition to undermining revenue collection, this policy instability has raised significant consternation among foreign investors. Economically, this should be a good period for Zambia with strong commodity prices, but the government has interfered with mining in a very erratic way, forcing mines to submit to nationalisation.
Added to this is the closing democratic space, the deteriorating state of the human rights situation in the country (for example, read Amnesty International’s latest report on Zambia), the general breakdown in the rule of law, and the absence of leadership on key issues such as grand corruption in government, the so-called “gassing” incidents in early-2020 (discussed in detail below), the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and deepening ethnic divisions that have characterised the past five years.
Another issue is that Lungu – first elected in the 2015 presidential by-election that followed Michael Sata’s death in office and then re-elected in the disputed 2016 general election – is widely seen as seeking a third term in office. Since the re-introduction of multiparty politics in 1991, no president has been voted in more than twice. Although the Constitutional Court controversially ruled by majority decision this June that Lungu is eligible to stand again, the much-publicised legal challenge to his nomination delegitimised his candidature among much of the public. There is a significant constituency who are unhappy he is standing for a third time and are keen to stop him.
In these 2021 elections, Lungu is also riding on his own record in office. In the last two elections, he campaigned as Sata’s preferred successor, but now the veil has fallen away. Although he has presided over the passage of a new constitution (one he unsuccessfully tried to amend in 2020) and overseen considerable achievements in infrastructure development, his overall record has not endeared him to many Zambians. All variables considered, it is reasonable to say that in a fair election, Lungu cannot win.
Another difficultly facing Lungu is that he is heading into the election with less state support than previously. In 2016, he managed to keep his ministers in office even after the dissolution of parliament. The Constitutional Court declared this move unconstitutional days before the election, but by then his ministers had already mobilised significant government resources for the PF campaign. Deprived of the same advantage this time, Lungu has been left exposed.
Lungu’s last card
With the president facing such odds, there are even rumours that he might seek to postpone the presidential election by enticing one of the 15 other candidates to withdraw from the race. Zambia’s constitution requires the electoral commission to cancel the vote and organise fresh nominations if a candidate pulls out of the running before election day. If he did this, Lungu’s objectives would be four-fold.
The first would be to allow parliamentary elections to take place, while the presidential poll was postponed, in the hope that he would then have the backing of elected MPs in a rescheduled presidential election. The second would be to slow the considerable momentum Hichilema has gathered and stretch his resources with a new election campaign. The third would be to secure a lower voter turnout in a stand-alone election, which might make it easier to manipulate the process. And the final goal would be to separate the presidential election from parliamentary and municipal polls because, according to sources in the intelligence community, Lungu believes this will make it easier to rig. To this end, recent weeks in Zambia have been awash with dodgy opinion polls projecting a Lungu victory in the first round.
If the election proceeds as scheduled, however, Lungu’s campaign will be reliant on the efforts of two female politicians: the retiring Vice-President Inonge Wina, who lacks a clear power base of her own; and the president’s running mate Nkandu Luo, a deeply divisive figure who may lose rather than gain him votes. Lungu chose Luo to join his ticket because he saw her as unambitious and because she is not part of either of the PF’s Bemba-speaking factions led by former health minister Chitalu Chilufya and former minister of finance Bwalya Ng’andu respectively.
Even ethnic mobilisations against Hichilema appear to be hitting a wall in rural constituencies this time. In Luapula and Eastern provinces, several voters who previously identified with the PF have shown a willingness to forego their ethnic attachments and vote for the Tonga-speaking UPND leader. “This time, I am trying Hichilema; let us see what he can do,” was a repeated phrase during my recent visits to these areas.
Lungu may still emerge victorious in Eastern, Luapula, Northern and Muchinga provinces, but he is likely to do so with reduced margins, especially in the Bemba-speaking Northern and Muchinga provinces where M’membe is likely to perform well due to his ethnic roots there and effective grassroots campaigns. Most importantly, Lungu is likely to lose in Lusaka and the Copperbelt provinces despite his attempts to placate public sector workers with populist policies such as ordering the payment of gratuities to mineworkers before Election Day and placing a three-month moratorium, effective August, on debt repayments that civil servants owe to lending institutions. Were this to happen and Hichilema also wins in his traditional constituencies of Southern, Northwestern, Western and Central provinces, the incumbent may even lose the election in the first round.
Seemingly aware of the high likelihood of his defeat – and the threat of subsequent prosecution for possible corruption and criminal misuse of power – Lungu had previously developed strategies to secure re-election. The first was an attempt to amend the constitution that was defeated in parliament. The second was to disqualify Hichilema by arresting him on a trumped-up charge.
Two schemes were hatched towards this goal. One involved linking the opposition leader to the “gassing attacks”, a spate of suspicious incidents in early-2020 in which unknown people were rumoured to have sprayed unidentified chemical substances on unsuspecting residents, leaving them gasping for breath or briefly unconscious. At the time, the PF accused the opposition of being behind the attacks, while the opposition alleged that the ruling party had staged them as a pretext for arresting political opponents ahead of 2021. Whatever actually happened, the outbreak of violence connected to these “attacks” left at least 50 people dead, but the strategy collapsed after the rank and file of the military – according to senior military sources – refused to cooperate with the civilian authorities’ plans to implicate Hichilema. The other scheme was to arrest Hichilema over a private farmland he acquired in 2004, two years before he joined politics and was elected UPND leader. A small, Lungu-friendly party that is opposition in name only filed a complaint against Hichilema, alleging irregularities in the procurement of the land. This strategy also failed after key witnesses, arguing they had been coerced, refused to cooperate with the authorities and went into hiding.
Another strategy Lungu has employed to rebalance the election in his favour has been to abolish the 6 million person-strong electoral register and create a new more favourable one in a month. The ruling party feared the existing roll, created over 11 years, had more registered voters in opposition strongholds than the PF’s. Although Lungu achieved this objective in December 2020, when a new dubious register totalling 7 million voters was announced by ECZ, the president is now unconvinced he has the support of most voters even in areas once considered PF strongholds.
According to PF insiders, Lungu has now asked his agents to help manipulate the election using two new strategies. The first involves reducing the number of polling agents, both from political parties and civil society, who would be allowed to monitor the voting and counting. Last month, the ECZ announced plans to reduce the number of local observers to five per constituency and one per polling district due to COVID-19. The commission later gave political parties a few days to submit the particulars of their chosen agents and organise for their transportation to provincial capitals so their photographs and name tags could be prepared. Given the short notice, it is unlikely that opposition parties managed to meet this requirement before the deadline. If implemented, these measures are likely to leave several of the over 12, 000 polling stations without monitors.
The second strategy involves the deployment of the military onto the streets a few days before the election in areas likely to vote for the opposition. On 1 August, Lungu unleashed soldiers from the Zambia Army, Zambia Air Force and Zambia National Service onto the streets. “I have allowed other wings of the defense force to join the police in maintaining law and order in those points where we have experienced violence,” he said. The military has so far been deployed to nearly all of Zambia’s 10 provinces including those that are not violent hotspots such as Southern, Western and Northwestern provinces. Lungu’s decision followed the death of two people in Lusaka’s Kanyama township, which the PF has been quick to blame on the UPND. However, sources both in the police and military told me that this deployment was long planned. In fact, on 26 July, Zambia Army Commander Lieutenant General William Sikazwe announced on the state-run ZNBC TV that his officers were “ready to move in and curtail any disturbance of peace and security before, during and after August 12 elections”. “We have plans,” he continued. “For now, it is the police that are in charge. But we are ready! We are on standby”.
A senior police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that the suspicious deaths in Lusaka were just a pretext. “The idea was to project the UPND as violent and to justify the deployment of troops,” he said. “The mood in urban centres does not look to be favourable to the PF.”
In deploying the military to police electoral contests, the first time this has happened since Zambia achieved independence in 1964, Lungu seeks to intimidate voters into staying away from the polls, facilitate ballot stuffing and dubious vote tabulation, and supress potential protests, military sources revealed. The Zambia Air Force is particularly crucial because they are the ones who transport ballot boxes to and from polling stations to the totalling centre. The problem for Lungu is that there is no guarantee the military will cooperate in this scheme. While the top brass of the Zambian military is loyal to Lungu, the rank and file is professional and has historically played a neutral rather than partisan political role.
What happens if all this fails and Hichilema wins the election? The PF has already announced that they have assembled a team of lawyers to petition the results. In addition to recognising that they may lose the election, these developments indicate the PF’s confidence in the Constitutional Court’s deference to the interests of the current executive.
In a free and fair election, Lungu cannot win. In an unfair one, it seems he cannot lose.