|9. August 2016
Tense atmosphere before elections on Thursday
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.
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.
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, African Arguments)