- Hakainde Hichilema got more than 2.8 million votes.
- Rival and incumbent President Edgar Lungu received 1.8 million votes.
- Analysts see Hichilema's victory as a win for the country's democratic institutions despite the president's allegations of violence.
Zambia's opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema sailed to a decisive victory in an election that was characterised by tension and an even playing field, the Electoral Commission of Zambia announced on Monday.
Hichilema received more than 2.8 million votes, about one million votes more than the incumbent candidate, President Edgar Lungu. The candidate of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) received 1.8 million votes.
The electoral commission recorded a voter turnout of just more than 70% of Zambia's over seven million registered voters.
As Hichilema and the United Party for National Development surged ahead in the count, Lungu released a statement on Saturday declaring the election "not free and fair". Lungu alleged violence in three provinces, "rendering the whole exercise a nullity". Lungu also wrote to the electoral commission to request a halt in counting, which was ignored.
Both the African Union (AU) and European Union (EU) observer missions noted the tense political environment ahead of the election, exacerbated by a third wave of Covid-19 infections and accompanying regulations and economic hardship. Still, neither confirmed Lungu's accusations that PF members were intimidated and barred from entering polling stations.
READ | Zambian President Lungu claims elections 'not free and fair' as opposition candidate surges ahead
The AU observer mission said election day was largely peaceful and calm "with no incidents of violence witnessed".
"Although long queues were observed throughout the day, they were largely orderly, except in a few isolated cases where the crowd was rowdy," the AU observer mission said in a statement.
The polarised media environment and misuse of state instruments were a point of concern for observer missions, who said this added to an uneven playing field among candidates.
"Whereas the legal framework provided a reasonable basis for the conduct of democratic elections, selective application of laws and regulations, misuse of state resources and one-sided media reporting meant that a level playing field was not achieved," said EU chief observer Maria Arena.
The opposition's victory is seen as confirmation that Zambia's institutional democracy has remained independent, withstanding allegations of rigging from the Patriotic Front and pressure from the presidential palace to stop the count when Lungu began to trail.
"We hope that this will lead to a reassertion of independence of key state institutions – the police, judiciary, military, and electoral commission – that have come under extreme pressure in the last six years," said Nicole Beardsworth, a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand and researcher of Zambian politics and electoral systems.
"Hakainde Hichilema's victory once again bolsters democracy in Zambia, proving to political elites that if they fail to deliver, they will be removed; and it reminds the people once again that their vote really matters," said Beardsworth, who has spent the last several weeks in the country.
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