Zambia will be holding its national presidential and parliamentary elections on 11 August 2016 in an environment of heightened political tensions. The incumbent, Edgar Lungu, has only held office since January 2015 following a snap election called after the death of President Michael Sata. Lungu, who also replaced Sata as leader of the Patriotic Front (PF), only received a mandate to complete Sata’s term in office.
The electoral campaign period has been marked by incidents of violence, with at least one protester killed in clashes with police. The violence has been particularly bad in the capital, Lusaka, and the city of Namwala, resulting in the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) suspending campaigning in the two cities between 10 and 18 July. During this period, political parties were banned from holding public rallies, meetings, processions or door to door campaigns.
Lungu is facing stiff competition from the leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND), Hakainde Hichilema, with the race considered too close to call at this time. The two men also faced off in the 2015 election which Lungu barely won, receiving 48.33% of the vote to Hichilema’s 46.67%.
Political tensions have been elevated between supporters of the two rivals, stoked by statements by Hichilema that the elections are not going to be free and fair and that Lungu is using the state apparatus to rig the vote and abusing the Public Order Act (POA) to harass opposition parties. In addition, the influential newspaper, The Post, has been shut down by the Zambian Revenue Authority (ZRA) due to unpaid taxes. The newspaper does not dispute the debt but does claim that the timing is suspicious and that the ZRA has not taken similar action against what it calls government-friendly papers which also owe significant back taxes. Government controlled media has also come under heavy criticism for biased reporting in favour of the ruling PF party and denying opposition parties (especially UPND) fair coverage and political advertisements. In addition, the ECZ has been accused of not acting on violations of the Electoral Code of conduct (mainly by the ruling PF party) involving defacing and pulling down opposition campaign materials such as bill boards.
Fomenting suspicions, the online newspaper Open Zambia published an alleged leaked plan by the government to steal the election called “Operation 777”. This plan reportedly includes: removing opposition observers from polling stations; manipulating the printing of ballot papers; eliminating critical coverage by The Post; giving Zambian passports and voting cards to foreign nationals; restricting the opposition party’s use of airspace; and purchasing votes in a “well-co-ordinated manner”.
Adding credence to the claims, Transparency International Zambia has voiced concerns over the multitude of irregularities on the voting role including about 132 000 duplicate voters, which it described as “criminal”. Added to this, a recent audit of the voters’ role also revealed irregularities involving cases in which registered voters shared the same ID number.
This is all taking place in the context of an economic slowdown in Zambia. The country benefited hugely from the recent commodities super-cycle which appears to have ended, leading to a decrease in its exports and a reduction in national income. In addition, power supply challenges are a severe impediment, with economic growth expected to slow to 3% this year.
Given the close nature of the 2015 ballot, the results are likely to be contested, particularly if Lungu wins by an increased majority. In the event of an opposition victory, it remains to be seen whether Lungu will vacate the presidency voluntarily. Regardless, following an acrimonious campaign period, any election result disputes could catalyse demonstrations and violent protests that could escalate and spread beyond urban centres and stakeholders with vested interests are advised to monitor the situation closely.