Zambians will cast their votes on Thursday in a hotly contested general election after a campaign undermined by accusations of voter fraud, harassment and intimidation.
The presidential, parliamentary and local elections are expected to be a close contest between President Edgar Lungu’s ruling Patriotic Front (PF) and its main rival, the United Party for National Development (UPND), led by veteran politician Hakainde Hichilema.
However, the run-up to the ballot has been tainted by UPND claims that the voters’ register has been manipulated to disadvantage it in regions where it is popular, as well as outbreaks of deadly pre-election violence.
Opposition parties also claim their candidates and supporters have been harassed and intimidated while campaigning for votes. In June, the electoral body suspended campaigns in three districts because of fighting between the UPND and PF supporters.
Last week Mr Lungu (64) deployed soldiers to patrol the streets of the capital, Lusaka, after clashes between supporters of the two parties left two dead and many more injured.
Even though there are 16 candidates contesting the presidential race, Mr Lungu’s main challenger for the role is Mr Hichilema, a 59-year-old businessman who has unsuccessfully contested five previous elections.
The UPND leader, who is promising to fix an economy that has nearly collapsed under Mr Lungu’s rule, believes most Zambians are desperate to see new leaders in office.
“In all my years in politics, I have never seen such an overwhelming thirst for change,” Mr Hichilema told reporters last week. “After years of suffering, the public is desperate for change and a new start.”
In the 2016 presidential election Mr Hichilema lost to Mr Lungu by just over 100,000 votes. The UPND rejected the result saying the Electoral Commission of Zambia colluded with the ruling party to rig the outcome.
Mr Lungu, who is seeking a third term in office, has built major roads, airports and rural healthcare facilities since coming to power in 2015 after his predecessor Michael Sata died in office. His detractors, however, have accused him of gross economic mismanagement.
Defaulting on debt
The cost of Mr Lungu’s infrastructure drive has left the nation floundering under foreign debt that has hit nearly $19 billion (€16 billion) by mid-2021. Zambia spends between 30 and 40 per cent of its revenues to meet the interest payments on its debt, credit rating firm S&P Global estimates.
In 2020, Africa’s second-largest copper producer defaulted on its debt repayment obligations, making it the first country on the continent to do so in the Covid-19 era.
A report on Zambia’s economic situation by Ringisai Chikohomero, a researcher at South Africa’s Institute of Security Studies, stated the country has performed well in terms of foreign direct investment and increased productivity in its mining sector under Mr Lungu.
“However, this hasn’t translated into tangible economic gains for the population, who face lower earnings and rising food prices. Food inflation stands at over 30 per cent – the highest in nearly two decades,” Mr Chikohomero wrote earlier this month.
Mr Hichilema has mobilised 20,000 election agents from his party to assist in a parallel vote tabulation process. But the government’s critics have warned that a recently passed cybersecurity and cybercrimes Bill could be used by the ruling party to interrupt internet and digital communications as election results roll in.
If the 2021 election results are similar to 2016, local civil rights groups say there is a significant chance that post-election violence will break out in the country.