Zambia polls: democracy hovering on a precipice?


Zambians go to the polls Thursday to elect a president for the second time in 19 months. The death of President Michael Sata in October 2014 triggered a special by-election in January 2015. President Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front (PF), Zambia’s ruling party, narrowly won that by-election. Lungu hopes to extend his rule five more years, says Grieve Chelwa, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for African Studies at Harvard University. In addition to electing a head of state, Zambians will choose members of parliament and municipal council representatives, and vote in a referendum on whether to amend the Bill of Rights, he writes for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage:

Nine candidates are running for the presidency. There haven’t been any recent nationally representative opinion polls in Zambia, but many believe the competition is down to current president Lungu and Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND). During last year’s contest, the difference between Lungu and Hichilema was a mere 1.7 percentage points. The Movement for Multiparty Democracy, the party that ruled Zambia from 1991 to 2011, has not fielded a candidate this time around.

Zambia has been hailed as one of Africa’s most stable and mature democracies. It has held regular multi-party elections since 1991, including in 2011 when President Rupiah Banda lost, accepted defeat and stepped down. But this poll is being contested under new rules, the BBC adds:

The constitution was amended in response to the deaths of two sitting presidents in less than five years, which meant early elections on both occasions. Under the new rules, a presidential candidate is required to have a running mate who will become vice-president and take over if the president dies in office. For the first time, the winner must also secure a minimum of one vote more than 50% of the ballots cast. Otherwise the poll will go into a second round, to be held within 37 days.

Civil society groups and religious groups have expressed concern about the spate of violence during the ongoing campaigns. Supporters of the ruling PF and those from the UPND have traded accusations of carrying out violence and intimidation, VOA adds.

There are a number of reasons why the stakes seem so high in this election, but the importance of the woeful economic context in which Zambia finds itself is difficult to overstate, says analyst Joy Mabenge:

Falling commodity prices, lay-offs in the copper industry, tax avoidance by multinationals, and the government’s failure to alleviate poverty during boom times have all contributed to the intensity with which this contest is now being fought.

If history is anything to go by, the current political tumult will subside after the elections and result in a new configuration of political parties, analyst Danielle Resnick contends. And if some key provisions in the new constitution are indeed upheld, including preventing sitting MPs from switching party affiliations without losing their seats, then Zambia’s repeated pattern of democratic backsliding and party fissures may hopefully become less pronounced over time.

Martin Luther King III called on Zambian youth leaders to “reject the use of violence as a political tool” at a recent event sponsored by the National Democratic Institute (above, right) to provide young leaders with anti-violence training and a platform on which to speak out against electoral violence.

“All things considered, Thursday’s race will be a close one — making it difficult to predict a winner,” notes Chelwa, a contributing editor for Africa Is A Country. “It is also not clear that the contest will be settled in the first round.”

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