Zambia’s presidential election was expected to be a tight two-horse race between President Edgar Lungu and perennial opposition candidate Hakainde Hichilema. But early results suggest something very different. With 62 constituencies officially declared by the Electoral Commission of Zambia, Hichilema is on 63% of the vote with a vast lead of 28% over Lungu, who is trailing on 34.6%.
Economic desperation and growing distrust of President Lungu has led to a nationwide swing towards Hichilema’s United Party of National Development – which has increased its vote share in all the vast majority constituencies released so far.
Amid growing desperation within the ruling party, President Lungu has taken inspiration from an unlikely source – former US President Donald Trump. Despite enjoying all of the vast powers of incumbency that mean that presidents in Africa win 88% of the elections they contest, Lungu and his lieutenants are complaining that the elections were rigged against them.
In a statement released on Saturday 14 August, Lungu went so far as to say that the presidential election was “unfree and unfair” and should therefore be nullified.
This is not a strategy that has been cooked up overnight – anticipating a tough election, the government has been laying the foundation for this strategy for weeks. It has three main components: 1) exaggerating the violence committed by opposition parties, 2) pretending that the police cannot cope with the level of unrest, 3) claiming that this violence only occurred in opposition strongholds and so the vote in these areas is particularly suspect.
This strategy has little credibility, which is precisely why it is so divisive – and has the potential to push Zambia into the biggest political crisis in its 30-year multiparty history.
The state of play
Lungu’s strategy is born of desperation.
While only two-thirds (40%) of constituency results have been released, it already looks like Hichilema’s lead is unassailable. What is more, he also has a comfortable gap to the 50%+1 of the vote he needs to win in the first round of voting. An early hope for the Patriotic Front government was that support for Hichilema would be largely confined to his traditional strongholds, with a small increase in county’s more populous and cosmopolitan regions such as Lusaka and the Copperbelt.
But this hope was quickly dashed on voting day when large turnout across the country suggested that Zambians has decided that Lungu’s time was up. As those standing in long queues in Lusaka compounds told us “we are all here to vote for change” and “you don’t turn up so early to support the incumbent.”
These early predictions were soon proved right by the – painfully slow – official release of the results by the ECZ. Hichilema has already built a big lead on the Copperbelt (56%) and Lusaka (61%), which account for 31% of all registered voters. There was even bad news for President Lungu in his supposed “heartlands”. In Eastern Province, for example, Lungu is currently on 54%. This sounds like a decent performance until you realise that he secured 79% of the vote in this region in 2016 – a fall of some 25% in just five years.
With a string of minor candidates queuing up to concede defeat – and either congratulate Hichilema or reference support for a transfer of power in their speeches – the writing is on the wall. Moreover, both the UPND’s own vote count based on party members, and the official Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT) carried out by domestic monitor group CCMG are widely expected to “confirm” a first round victory for the opposition candidate.
The Trump card
Where the margin of votes between rival candidates is small, last minute rigging can help leaders get over the line. It is already clear, however, that this will not be the case in Zambia in 2021. Lungu appears on course to lose by a bigger margin than President Rupiah Banda in 2011, and the UPND seems to be much better placed to detect foul play.
Already, representatives from a number of opposition parties intervened to prevent the ECZ from releasing results for Feira that did not match the figures they had received from their own teams. After a delay, ECZ announced figures that the opposition party agreed with. If this trend continues, there will be no chance for the government to fiddle its way back into power.
Lungu has therefore decided to pursue a very different strategy: following the example of Unites States President Donald Trump, he has attempted to turn defence into attack by alleging that the elections were actually rigged by his rival. This isn’t something the Patriotic Front simply cooked-up on voting day – instead, having watched Trump carefully, they began laying the foundation weeks in advance. Doing so is critical to make subsequent claims seem more credible, and to prime supporters to be on the look out for certain “developments” to ensure that later misinformation is interpreted in the desired way.
In President Lungu’s case, this plan has had three main components:
1) exaggerating the violence committed by opposition parties
Ahead of the polls, President Lungu and state-aligned media consistently exaggerated violence committed by the UPND in an attempt to create the impression that political unrest and clashes between rival cadres were the fault of the opposition.
This was a smart ploy. Civil society groups, international donors and the world’s media are often tempted to accept a degree of repression in order to sustain peace and order, such is the concern about the economic and human impact of conflict in Africa. As recent research has explained, campaigns to promote peace have regularly been subverted to repress critical voices, replacing democracy with peaceocracy.
The problem for Lungu was that it was fairly transparent: while it is clear that cadres affiliated with both sides have committed violence, the post-election statement of the CCMG domestic monitoring group reports that twice as much violence was instigated by individuals affiliated to the PF as by those aligned to the UPND.
2) pretending that the police cannot cope with the level of unrest
In line with this approach, the government sought to manipulate political unrest in order to secure a tighter grip on the political process. Most notably, a sad incident in which two individuals – who PF has claimed as its supporters, although the UPND suggests that one actually was an opposition cadre – was used as a pretext to deploy the military to the streets.
This was an unprecedented move, and caused considerable concern among opposition leaders – especially when it became clear that the military were not only being sent to “hot spots” but also to areas in which there had been no significant violence.
One of the justifications that the president used to deploy this strategy was that the police had been overwhelmed. This was also unpersuasive, however, as the growing politicization of the police under Lungu’s leadership, and the fact that the police have predominantly intervened to arrest opposition cadres and not ruling party ones, suggests that the rise in electoral violence was largely a product deliberately engineered by the regime itself.
3) claiming that this violence only occurred in opposition strongholds and so the vote in these areas is particularly suspect.
Despite being in full control of the police and army – with a police officer in every polling station and the military now deployed across the country – the ruling party has responded to its dismal electoral showing by claiming that its voters were intimidated.
In an initial statement released on 12 August, the government claimed that the level of opposition intimidation meant that the vote in its regions could not be considered free and fair. The implication seemed to be that the elections should be cancelled in opposition areas, while the results in government strongholds should be retained.
A subsequent statement on 14 August made a bolder claim, with the headline: “President Lungu Declares General Election Not Free and Fair”. The second iteration of the complaint – which followed a complaint made to the ECZ leaders at Mulungushi, where the votes are being verified and announced – suggested that a key problem was that “PF party agents had been chased out of polling stations”.
These claims rested heavily on one incident – a tragedy in which PF North Western Province Chairman Jackson Kungo was killed by a mob that suspected him of bringing pre-marked ballot papers into a polling station. Kungo’s killing was deeply saddening, and was rightly condemned by all sides. But there is no evidence that it was part of a wider pattern.
Instead, CCMG domestic monitors found that PF party agents were present in 98% of polling stations, and a growing number of legal organisations including the Law Association of Zambia, observers, and civil society groups, have lined up to publicly doubt Lungu’s claims. Perhaps most significantly, six of the most prominent minor candidates came together to say that if anyone had tried to rig the election it was him, and that he should stand down.
For its part, UPND leaders have pointed out that there were also incidents of violence against its leaders and supporters on polling day, but they have tended to receive less attention because they were not amplified by state media.
Can it work?
Donald Trump was forced to stand down as US President, but not before he had done inordinate harm to the country’s political system. Not only did Trump intensify the fault lines at the heart of US politics, but the attack on the US Capitol represented one of the most shocking and dangerous moments in the country’s history.
Ultimately, he was forced to stand down due to the fact that key democratic institutions – and just as importantly the individuals within them – did their civic duty.
So what can we expect in Zambia?
The country’s democratic institutions have also been weakened by thoroughgoing politicisation and the use of appointments to promote figures loyal to President Lungu himself. But there are already signs that despite this, he will likely not get his way.
Many in the military are also understood to be unhappy about the idea of being deployed for political purposes, and so the president may not be confident that soldiers ordered to repress protestors will carry out the instruction. Meanwhile a judge of the High Court also issued an injunction against the blocking of social media platforms – a critical source of communication for both democratic activists and normal citizens – after a case was brought by the Chapter One Foundation. As a result, WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook have been turned back on, at least for now.
In both cases, the extent of public support for Hichilema – which has been trickling out, despite the delays by ECZ – is likely to have been critical. Soldiers and judges are also members of Zambian society and will want to be able to hold their heads up high if Lungu is forced out of State House.
Given this, it critically important that the ECZ continues to release results. Although the slow rate of progress has frustrated many and left many across the country anxious and fearful, the Commission has now released three batches of results that are clearly good news for Hichilema and bad for the President. We believe this demonstrates considerable independence. The ECZ’s continued announcement of results so far, despite the PF’s complaints, suggests that the ECZ is unlikely to yield to pressure from President.
Indeed, some analysts believe that it has been an inability to effectively infiltrate and control the ECZ that has led the president to make inflammatory public statements in a bid to intimidate the Commission into submission. Electoral commissions and officials therefore deserve strong and unequivocal support and encouragement from everyone who cares about the future of Zambia
If they continue to release results as they have been, the pressure on Lungu to stand down may soon become insurmountable.
Nicole Beardsworth (@NixiiB) is a Lecturer in Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand
Nic Cheeseman (@Fromagehomme) is the Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and the founder of Democracy in Africa.
O’Brien Kaaba (@OBrien_Kaaba) is a Lecturer in the School of Law at the University of Zambia