On 15 August 2016, the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) announced that Edgar Lungu, leader of the Patriotic Front (PF), won the 11 August 2016 national election by 50.35% of the vote. His main opponent Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND), received 47.67% and almost immediately contested the result alleging that the ECZ colluded with the PF to ensure Lungu retained the presidency. The UPND cited the delay in releasing the results as evidence of this collusion while the ECZ ascribed the delay to a higher than expected turnout.
Demonstrations protesting the results have erupted countrywide with the worst protests occurring in the towns of Monze, Chombe and Mazabuka in the country’s south, leading to the arrest of over 130 people. This had led to authorities heightening security across the country, with a particular focus on UPND strongholds in the south. There are concerns that the violence could escalate as political tensions in Zambia were already heightened after a divisive campaign period marked by clashes between demonstrators and police which killed at least one person. The ECZ and various international election observer mission have appealed for calm, with figures such as former United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Kofi Annan urging authorities to ensure security forces act with restraint and within the bounds of the constitution.
However, tensions are likely to persist for some time, as Hichilema has stated that the UPND intends to approach the country’s Constitutional Court to nullify the election result. Regardless of the Court’s decision further protests are likely, either by UPND supporters unhappy with the decision to affirm the ECZ’s results or by PF supporter’s dissatisfied with the court overturning Lungu’s victory. Should the Court, in fact, order a rerun, political divisions could deepen and violent political protests would be increasingly likely; Court processes could also compound uncertainty as an interim president will need to be appointed while the Court deliberates. This could be the Speaker of the National Assembly, Patrick Matibini, as the Zambian Constitution mandates the speaker to take over the executive’s responsibility in the case of a contested or nullified election. This in itself could be contentious due to Matibini’s affiliation with the PF.
The Constitutional Court is most likely to affirm the ECZ’s results. This is due partly to the fact that most international observers, including the European Union (EU), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) and Carter Centre, said elections were generally free and fair, despite noting some concerns such as the delay in announcing results and a pro-PF bias in local media. Accordingly, further protests by Hichilema’s supporters can be expected and the possibility of violent, even potentially fatal, clashes with security forces cannot be discounted.
Even if the UPND accepts the Constitutional Court’s expected ruling upholding the results, political tension will likely persist in the country’s parliament, potentially undermining the legislature’s functioning. The burgeoning political crisis will also undermine Zambian efforts to effectively address major socio-economic challenges such as the increasing national debt and ongoing drought. This also all coincides with an economic slowdown in Zambia driven by the deflated price of natural resources such as copper.
This collateral damage of the divisive election to Zambia’s democracy will take some time to repair and Zambia will need to rapidly restore its reputation of stability if it is to make economic progress. Further downturns could increase investor anxiety and the next few weeks could be definitive in determining how quickly Zambia gets back on its feet.