Zambians head to the polls in election overshadowed by Covid-19

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  • Zambia's incumbent and main opposition have squared off in a tight election before.
  • Observers have accused the state of cracking down on opposition rallies.
  • The country's economy is a key issue with more than a third of Zambians struggling to buy food.

During election season, Lusaka is awash with party colours as political parties vie for voters' attention in what has historically been one of Africa's most stable states.

Zambians will go to the polls on Thursday in a climate of uncertainty that could have far-reaching consequences for the country's political and economic future.

In the grip of a third wave of Covid-19, the country has spent weeks under restrictions that have banned traditional campaigning. The pandemic has also exposed the deep-seated economic woes of a country that has relied on its copper exports for decades.

READ | Zambia's opposition says barred from campaigning in key region ahead of election

Perhaps most concerning of Zambia's unfamiliar electoral season was the deployment of the military just days ahead of Thursday's election. President Edgar Lungu deployed the military on 1 August to ensure that the work of the Electoral Commission of Zambia "is not interfered with, nor undermined".

It was the latest in what observers and the opposition say has been an unfair electoral climate. The authorities banned rallies and gatherings, only allowing door-to-door campaigning.

"What this has done is essentially made it feel in Lusaka like there is no actual campaigning under way, and especially in the middle-class suburbs of Lusaka," said Nicole Beardsworth, a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand who has spent the last month in the Zambian capital.

"It feels incredibly quiet for an election season."

Campaigning

A day before voting, Patriotic Front candidate (PF) Lungu drove through Lusaka as hundreds of supporters crushed against each other, waving at his motorcade. To avoid rallies, politicians have turned to these roadshows, but the number of supporters waving at the president defied Covid-19 regulations.

Lungu moved on to a slick virtual rally that was broadcast nationally and on social media and featured local musicians.

 

"I want to promise the Zambian people that even as we vote, there is a government in place," Lungu said, wearing the party's colours on a stage emblazoned with his face.

Conversely, police cracked down on gatherings of the main opposition the United Party for National Development (UPND), including its roadshows. UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema's final appearance was held at his residence and broadcast on Facebook.

"Zambia is at a crossroads," Hichilema said in a final press conference on Wednesday broadcast on Facebook. Compared to Lungu's virtual rally, it was a muted affair. "To the people of Zambia, as you cast your vote, remember the future is in your hands."


In the absence of rallies ahead of the election, large billboards have carried the parties' messaging. The number of billboards, however, became the first sign of an unequal playing field. While the ruling PF had 322 billboards across 12 towns, the main opposition had only 73, according to a report by Transparency International Zambia.

The discrepancy has been attributed to funding and downright vandalism of the opposition's adverts. Notably, the recently formed Socialist Party had 84 billboards, the second highest of the six parties competing.

Swing states

Lungu and Hichilema first faced off in 2015 following the sudden death of President Michael Sata a year earlier. Lungu won 48.84% in the first round of voting, compared to Hichilema's 47.17%.

Lungu earned just 13 000 votes more than the required tally to secure victory and avoid going to a second round, according to Zambia's first-past-the-post electoral system.

In the years since then, Lungu's support has begun to drop. An Afrobarometer survey in December showed that Lungu's support had declined since 2016. A more recent survey by the Zambia Elections Panel Survey showed a decline in the regions that had previously earned him 25% of the national vote.

A study by Africa Confidential shows that states in urban areas may go to the UPND and that Hichilema could make inroads in PF strongholds.

Zambia election map


There are already fears that none of the main parties will accept the result. In the 2015 election, Lungu pointed to the PF's willingness to accept its previous losses.

"The disputes we get here in Africa post-elections are mostly the failure to accept the results," Lungu said of queries he'd fielded from international observers.

Hichilema implored the electoral commission to maintain a free and fair vote and urged the security forces to show restraint.

"We need tomorrow's (Thursday's) elections to be peaceful to give us a chance yet again," he said, adding that Thursday could see a return to 1991 when multiparty democracy was reintroduced in the country.

The economy

For many voters lining up to cast their ballot, the economy will be top of mind.

In September 2020, Zambia became the first African country to default on its international debt. It has since struggled to implement sufficient recovery measures. Zambians have already begun to feel the immediate effects of this international debt. Inflation has risen to just under 25%, and 80% of Zambians have a bad outlook of the economy, according to a May Afrobarometer survey.

"Right now the challenge we have is the economy, and we are doing our best to face the challenge head-on," Lungu said during his virtual rally.

The ruling party's online campaign has starred multiple infrastructure projects, from roads to a new airport terminal, all built by the government. Lungu has pointed to the development as signs of a recovering economy open for commerce and tourism.

He has also pointed to schools and clinics built for communities, but critics have pointed to the lack of teachers and medication to equip these new buildings.

READ | Zambia's Lungu faces tight election contest as debt crisis bites

The lack of paracetamol at local clinics is just one scarcity Zambians have had to contend with, said Beardsworth, pointing to a dire list of statistics.

During the pandemic, 35% of surveyed Zambians said they had to reduce their food portions because the price of food had increased, according to an October 2020 report by Innovations for Poverty Action. 

Politicians on the campaign trail have responded by suggesting alternative ingredients, in what has played out as a Marie Antoinette moment among voters.

"I don't think these PF politicians are quite so aware of how drastically the material conditions of people have changed," Beardsworth said.

The price of live chickens has increased by 75%, while the price of cabbage, eggs and kapenta, a small local fish that is the staple protein for millions of Zambians, have nearly doubled, she said.

The price of maize, the national staple, has risen by 14% year on year. While the average wage in the formal sector is 5 800 kwacha (R4 402), the cost of the average food basket for a family of five has risen to 8 400 kwacha (R6 376).

"People are just failing to meet their basic expenses, and the PF doesn't seem to have realised this until very late in the day," Beardsworth said.

A confident Hichilema believes international investors and regulators will appreciate a change of the guard, promising to manage the country's debt.

Hichilema, a businessman, has tried to convince voters that he will not seek office for personal gain, but because "it hurts to see Zambians go to bed without food in a country like this." He has pointed to the country's vast resources, including more than a third of southern Africa's fresh water supply.

Hichilema blamed Lungu for the country's GDP growth rate. He also moved to assure the country's public servants that he would not reduce work in the civil service, one of Zambia's largest employers. He has also promised to decentralise the economy to ensure the economy grows in rural areas too.

Hichilema has unsurprisingly positioned himself as the solution to the PF's shortcomings, and socio-economic frustration in the country has seen academics and autocrats side with him. In communicating his message on the economy, he may even have "over-promised", said political analyst Sishuwa Sishuwa.

What voters want to hear

"I think Hichilema was more successful in presenting himself as better placed to fixing Zambia's debt crisis through better fiscal management," Sishuwa said.

"The president has not addressed any of the major economic issues at all such as how is he going to solve the high levels of unemployment, especially among the youth, and the debt crisis, which is likely to weigh down whichever government is in power," the University of Zambia lecturer said.

To really connect with Zambian voters, both candidates should have addressed corruption and the lawlessness citizens have had to contend with during the last five years. High unemployment and inequality have led to a growing sense of ethnic division in the country.

"The two great enemies in Zambia are incompetence and venality. People want somebody they feel they can trust, who is going to coalesce the energies of everyone for nation-building and to preside over effective service delivery," Sishuwa said.

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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