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Zambia election: Lungu fights to retain strongholds as young voters push for change

By Chiwoyu Sinyangwe
Posted on Wednesday, 11 August 2021 16:07

Zambia's President Edgar Lungu speaks at a rally in the capital Lusaka, Zambia 19 January 2015. REUTERS/Rogan Ward/File Photo - RC2I1P9ELSE8

President Edgar Lungu and the ruling Patriotic Front go into this Thursday’s general election on the back foot as disgruntled young people and the middle class present a significant threat to the party’s 10-year stranglehold of power.

About seven million Zambians will head to the polls this Thursday to elect the country’s president for the next five years, with wealthy Lusaka businessman Hakainde Hichilema and his United Party for National Development (UPND) expected in pole position ahead of the PF which, apart from struggling with flagging public support, also suffers fractious internal organisation blamed on secretary general Davies Mwila.

Zambia has a strong history of holding peaceful elections; but years of systematic arming of PF supporters – mostly young people in expansive slums of key cities who galvanise under the guise of party internal security – coupled with the UPND’s reciprocal approach, has heightened political tension ahead of this year’s polls: flashes and pockets of violence are now not uncommon.

Two youthful PF supporters were gruesomely killed in the sprawling Kanyama area, west of Lusaka, when ‘foot soldiers’ from the ruling party unsuccessfully raided a UPND ‘camp’ during a fight for dominance in Zambia’s most densely populated constituency.

The Kanyama attack preceded a number of retaliatory attacks that PF supporters endured especially in areas it had dominated, until this year’s election campaign period.

Unprecedented security upgrade

Following the Kanyama incident, Lungu announced that Zambian army personnel would bolster the police to curtail pockets of violence. Lusaka and other key towns are now spotting heavily-armed soldiers patrolling the streets on Russian-made amphibious, armoured BRDM scout cars.

The army and the police, according to authorities, will be supported by other security personnel who include prison warders and wildlife troopers, in an unprecedented security upgrade in Zambia’s democratic history.

The Zambia army has recently earned public confidence after aiding citizens overcome natural calamities and playing a heroic role in fighting the cholera outbreak which ravaged Lusaka in 2017.

Common-sense dictates that Zambian soldiers would not abet any fraud act, but guarantee the rights of citizens and preserve peace in Lusaka.

“Soldiers on the street don’t scare me to vote – I am more comfortable to see soldiers because then I know that party cadres will not harass or intimidate me,” says Florence Mwango, a Lusaka resident.

However, some people fear that heavy police presence will discourage some voters.

The Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ)

The ECZ has announced that “the poll will be free and fair” and winners will be announced within “72 hours from the close of the last polling station.”

However, the credibility of the ECZ has come under serious doubts as it is seen to be impartial and too cosy with the ruling party and oftentimes, its top officials often hold joint-press briefings with government officials.

“The commission lacks objectivity, fairness and impartiality… In our view, the ECZ is a danger to security. The allegations – of under-age and foreign voters – which have not been cleared up to now [are] worrying,” said Nevers Mumba, a former televangelist and presidential candidate for the former ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy that was dethroned by PF in 2011.

The ECZ had briefly banned Bemba tribalist Chishimba Kambwili, a former minister and one of Lungu’s key campaigners, for tribal profiling and organising mass gatherings in defiance of Covid-19 guidelines. However, even after the ban, Kambwili did not stop: he openly used hate speech and advocated for Bemba hegemony.

While Lungu and his campaign team have been freely touring Zambia and canvassing for support, Hichilema’s movements have been heavily restricted, especially in areas the ruling party is struggling to retain control.

Despite there being 16 candidates, it is expected that the election will be a two-horse race between Lungu and Hichilema…

Four days ago, Hichilema was stopped from flying into the crucial Copperbelt Province because Lungu was already campaigning in the region that spans 31,328 square kilometres across 10 districts. “The president has never been this desperate for the Copperbelt vote – he has made it very clear he doesn’t want Hichilema in the area at all cost[s],” says a PF insider.

UPND campaign programmes have been curtailed through an archaic public order act and Covid-19 regulations implemented in a biased way. The restriction on Hichilema’s movements could prevent his UPND from appealing to the undecided voters who could opt to retain Lungu.

Internet concerns

Zambia has about 11 million active internet subscriptions out of the 18.4 million people. A good number of citizens are increasingly relying on the internet, especially as Zambia is one of the African countries worst hit by Covid-19.

On 9 August, government chief spokesperson Amos Malupenga hinted at the possibility of shutting down their cyberspace “if some people choose to abuse the internet to mislead and misinform” the public about the election results.

Zambian elections are officially announced by the ECZ, but various political parties and organisations often conduct parallel voter tabulation – to get an idea of the final outcome of an election – in an environment where exit polls are strictly forbidden.

Economic hardships; government’s intolerance and curtailing fundamental freedoms; and constant reports of perennial thefts of public funds as well as grand corruption are fueling the drive for change agenda…

Even before Malupenga’s announcement, there was growing speculation that the government was planning an internet blackout, in a deliberate attempt to keep citizens and the rest of the world in the dark during the election period until the winner is announced.

The European Union, key donors and supporters of Zambia’s democracy are worried that shutting down the internet during the elections will curtail the right to freedom of expression during the general election period and it will become difficult for citizens to exercise their rights.

A ban on social media platforms – mirroring Uganda’s clampdown on internet access during the last election controversially won by long-time leader Yoweri Museveni – was largely expected. A number of Zambians have already made plans to access the cyberspace through virtual private networks.

Despite flagging support, the PF machinery has been projecting that Lungu will win the election by at least 60% of the vote and a number of murky opinion polls – conducted by pro-PF organisations – are trading that number.

Rupiah Banda factor

Zambia’s only surviving former president, Rupiah Banda, heavily backed Lungu during the 2015 presidential elections as well as the 2016 general elections. Banda – who ruled Zambia between 2008 and 2011 – has opted to remain impartial and wants the election result delivered without manipulation.

“Any attempt by any entity acting alone or with others to impose a leadership outside the concept of ‘one man, one vote’ will be an assault on the sacrifices of our founding fathers. It will imperil the sovereignty and independence of the country and also jeopardise the peace and unity of this generation and those to come,” Banda said in a statement posted on his official Facebook page.

US threats on truant actors

The US embassy in Lusaka said it is “concerned about some of the trends” it is seeing in the buildup to the polls and “watching very intently” the conduct of some key actors such as candidates, supporters and cadre leaders.

“…US visa restrictions, lifelong travel bans, financial sanctions can be applied to officials in government and quasi-government bodies, security and police forces, political party members whether from ruling party or opposition, party cadres or leaders of such groups or front groups, election managers and any other figures who participate in or instigate others to violence,” said David Young, the chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Lusaka.

Wind of change

Economic hardships; government’s intolerance and curtailing of fundamental freedoms; constant reports of perennial thefts of public funds and grand corruption are fueling the drive for change – at the forefront of which are young people and urban dwellers.

“Despite what the government has achieved so far, it would be unrealistic for one to say there is no wind of change…most young people are not happy with what is happening; some people can’t afford even to have a meal a day and these are the things that affect people’s decisions although I feel the opposition does not have enough time to drive this change, it,” said Bizeck Phiri, a professor of history at the University of Zambia.

Re-run

Despite there being 16 candidates, it is expected that the election will be a two-horse race between Lungu and Hichilema. Harry Kalaba (former foreign affairs minister) and Fred M’membe (former owner of the Post newspaper) are expected to salvage some votes which could dent the final complexion of the results.

While most in Lusaka expect this year’s elections to be concluded in the first round, a possibility of the two frontrunners failing to garner majority votes will mean that the country goes to the polls again in November.

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