Zambia: Economy Dominates Zambia’s General Election

A new president and parliament is being elected in Zambia under difficult circumstances. The economy is crumbling and human rights are being violated in a former model democracy in Africa.

Heavily armed soldiers are on patrol in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. Their deployment came as tensions and violence between the political camps increased in the runup to the August 12 parliamentary and presidential elections.

Supporters of the government and the opposition — armed with machetes, axes, knives and slingshots — have repeatedly clashed in various parts of the country since campaigning began in May.

After two people — supporters of the ruling party, according to police — were brutally killed in the clashes, President Edgar Lungu sent the army in “to help the Zambia police in dealing with the security situation.”

Some of his critics, however, saw it as an attempt to intimidate the population.

Lungu has come under criticism from the opposition and human rights organizations for his increasingly autocratic style of leadership.

“There is evidence of senior government officials fueling the violence in Zambia over the past five years by the police,” Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for east and southern Africa, said in June.

The chairperson of the Electoral Commission of Zambia, Essau Chulu, told DW that the commission would “work with Zambian police during the elections to ensure that all political players adhere to requirements of the law and accord them a level playing field.” Anyone who breaches the electoral code of conduct “will be sanctioned accordingly,” Chulu added.

MacDonald Chipenzi, executive director of the non-governmental Governance, Elections, Advocacy, Research Services (GEARS) initiative, says there is currently no protection for members of Zambia’s opposition.

“The most scary thing which I think is at stake is the security of stakeholders in the electoral process,” he said.

The opposition has repeatedly complained that its election campaign has been hampered by the authorities, such as by being blocked from traveling to certain regions. According to Chipenzi, the real mood in the country and whether the situation will escalate will only be seen on election day.

A matter of two

Although there are16 candidates, the race for the highest office in the land will be decided between 64-year-old incumbent Edgar Lungu of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) and 59-year-old Hakainde Hichilema of the largest opposition party, the liberal United Party for National Development (UPND).

It is Hichilema’s sixth attempt to secure the presidency. It was already a close call in the last election in 2016. Lungu beat Hichilema by a margin of 2.7 percentage points, just narrowly clearing the 50% to avoid a runoff vote.

At the time, he had already been in office for a good year and a half, having won an unscheduled election following the death of his predecessor Michael Sata.

But Zambia has changed since then. The landlocked country in southern Africa was once considered one of the model democracies on the continent. Today, the country is experiencing worsening poverty, hunger, and economic and ethnic inequalities compared to five years ago, according to the pan-African analysis and opinion research institute Afrobarometer.

While in 2017, 15% of respondents said they had paid bribes within the past year for a public service, such as police, schools, or health care, that figure nearly doubled to 27% in 2020.

Human rights in peril

“What we have seen in Zambia, especially in the past five years, is an increasingly brutal crackdown on human rights, characterized by brazen attacks on any form of dissent,” said Deprose Muchena of Amnesty. According to the organization’s report, authorities have detained activists or stopped or dispersed protests through unlawful means and with excessive force.

The situation is exemplified by the state of press freedom in the country. A newspaper and a TV station critical of the government were closed under pressure from the authorities. Government intimidation attempts against journalists and direct attacks on them have increased, according to the organization Reporters Without Borders.

“To prosecute journalists, the government either uses financial pretexts (such as non-payment of taxes … or the various laws regulating defamation and sedition.

In the organization’s Press Freedom Index, Zambia has dropped an average of 30 places since 2015 compared to the years since 2000.

Zambia, 70% of whose exports depend on copper mining, is also tottering economically. Last year, it became the first African country to default on its debt in the COVID-19 pandemic and entered debt rescheduling negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As Zambia announced in May, it has reached already a broad agreement with the IMF in this regard. However, the decision will not be final until after the election.

According to observers, Hichilema is considered the more market and business-friendly candidate. Analyst Aleix Montana of consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft told the AFP news agency that a change in government will likely boost investor confidence.

Infrastructure has developed

But positive developments have certainly happened during Lungu’s time in office. Roads have been built including a bridge over the Zambezi River at the only border crossing with Botswana. Until its opening in May, trucks could only cross the important trade route to the south by ferry. Drivers often waited in kilometer-long lines, sometimes for several days.

“Driving has never been this nice,” economist Grieve Chelwa told AFP. “But you can’t eat the roads.” For the typical Zambian voter who has a low paid job or is employed in the informal sector, the election is “all about the economy,” Chelwa said.