Zambia: Economy dominates discourse in general election

Published : August 12, 2021 14:01 IST

Zambia's incumbent President Edgar Lungu (C) casts his vote at a polling station in Lusaka on August 12, 2021, as the country holds presidential and legislative elections. Photo: Patrick Meinhardt / AFP

Zambians will elect a new president as the economy crumbles and human rights are being violated.

Heavily armed soldiers are on patrol in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. Their deployment came as tensions and violence between rival 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 independent 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 are officially 16 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 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, when Lungu beat Hichilema by a margin of 2.7 per cent, just narrowly clearing 50 per cent to avoid a runoff vote. At the time, Lungu 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 a model democracy on the continent. Compared to five years ago, the country today is experiencing worsening poverty, hunger, and economic and ethnic inequalities, according to the pan-African analysis and opinion research institute Afrobarometer.

While in 2017, 15 per cent of poll 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 per cent 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 Muchena. According to the Amnesty International'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," reads a Zambia detail page on the RDF website. In the organization's Press Freedom Index, Zambia has dropped an average of 30 places since 2015.

Zambia, a country where 70 per cent of exports depend on copper mining, is tottering economically. Last year, it became the first African country to default on its debt during the COVID-19 pandemic, entering 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, that 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

Positive developments certainly have taken place 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 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.

Loyd Mwakwa, who lives in Zambia's second-largest city, Kitwe, testifies to this. "I would like to see the cost of living to come down, because at the moment it is way beyond people's pockets," the 25-year-old told DW. He says parties have focused on personal attacks against opponents instead of presenting political platforms to voters.

Women fall behind

As Zambians also elect a new parliament on August 12, presently only 17 per cent of MPs are women. Juliet Chibuta sees this year's elections as disadvantageous to women, especially against the backdrop of the pandemic. The executive director of the National Women's Lobby, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for equality, she explains how candidates are expected to fund their campaigns from personal resources.

"COVID-19 has also affected the economic situation of many women politicians, who are not doing well in business," Chibuta told DW. In addition, to reduce the risk of infection during the pandemic, rallies were banned. "This has reduced the chances of candidates, especially women, in making themselves visible," Chibuta said.

Women in Zambia typically don't have the resources to campaign on radio or television, or even with posters. Regardless, the ruling PF party and the opposition UPND did campaign on the streets despite the ban — under the pretext of distributing face masks in the pandemic.