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Zambia’s high stakes elections

By Ronak Gopaldas
Posted on Wednesday, 10 August 2016 13:10

Historically, Zambia has conducted largely peaceful elections and is the only country in the SADC region that has achieved a democratic transfer of power to an opposition party twice since independence. But Thursday’s electoral exercise promises to be one of the most tightly contested and high stakes elections in decades

President Edgar Lungu’s Patriotic Front party is well aware that it faces a real and tangible threat to its rule

Unlike in previous years, the political climate in Zambia during this election is considerably different. Recent incidents have raised eyebrows about whether the polls will be free and fair. The closure of The Post, Zambia’s only independent newspaper, rising political violence, controversies around the printing of ballot papers, and the cancellation of opposition rallies are just some of the unsavoury incidents which have sparked concern. For a country which has traditionally been one of Africa’s most stable and politically mature democracies, this is a worrying trend.

The election will be compelling for a number of reasons. Not only will it face the usual tensions between momentum and incumbency, populism and pragmatism, and rural and urban regions, it will also need to navigate a new electoral system, as the country moves from a first past the post to 50+1 approach. During this election, the Zambian people will be voting not only for their president, but also their cabinet representative, mayoral candidate and local government representative. At the same time they will be voting in a referendum relating to the Bill of Rights.

The incumbent Patriotic Front (PF), which has been in power for only one term, is set to pull out all the stops to maintain its grip on power. In the past, incumbents in Zambia have lost elections due to complacency. However, with a closely fought by-election in 2015 still fresh in its memory, this will not be a factor for President Edgar Lungu’s PF, which is well aware that it faces a real and tangible threat to its rule.

In the same vain, the United Party for National Development (UPND), and its flag bearer Hakainde Hichilema, know that this is its best and likely final chance to win an election after almost two decades of asking. With the stakes being so high, some worrying and regressive political behaviour has taken place on both sides of the spectrum, increasing tensions in the country.

The domestic and international communities will be scrutinising the polls and keeping a close watch to see what ensues afterwards. The prospect of disputed results, the resulting contestation by political parties, a protracted court process and potential violence has political and economic implications.

The Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) has three days in which to declare the results, after which parties have 21 days to lodge their appeals. A run-off, if required, needs to be called within 37 days of the election results being made public. The election results will probably be contested, and the question then becomes whether this will happen in the courts or on the streets.

In the event of a challenge, it is conceivable that a winner could be confirmed only by the end of September, creating a period of political uncertainty. The biggest consequence would be policy inertia, which will affect several economic issues, including the fiscus, the currency, inflation and growth.

With so much at stake and campaigning reaching fever pitch, the coming days will be critical in determining Zambia’s future course. Although the country’s political maturity and nonviolent history have raised hopes that any spike in risk after the election will be short-lived, the possibility of uncharacteristically high levels of violence in the aftermath of the election and a prolonged period of uncertainty remains high.

On the other hand, a speedy resolution of the electoral outcome will allow policymakers to quickly turn their attention to repairing the economy. Regardless of the outcome, the need for tough policy decisions and structural reforms is non-negotiable.

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