Zambia: Citizens Go to the Polls Thursday Amid Fears of Unfair Election

Zambians will pick their next president this Thursday, to choose whether to re-elect President Edgar Lungu who has enacted questionable economic policies and cracked down on opposition leaders and dissenters.

President Lungu has 15 contenders running against him, but polls indicate that the race will be tight as many are expected to vote for Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND) party in his sixth run for the top job.

The incumbernt, from the Patriotic Front (PF) party, deployed the army after supporters of opposition parties clashed two weeks before the polls.

Some see this as an attempt to intimidate those who will not to vote for him.

Yet the Patriotic Front is claiming the opposite. PF party spokesman Antonio Mwanza said on Tuesday that the opposition “is using violence” to “undermine the electoral process” in order to ensure voter turnout is low.

Speaking for the last time before the polls on Wednesday, Hichilema told supporters that putting the army on the streets during voting is not normal, calling on Zambians to support each other in non-threatening polls.

On Monday, Lungu said: “Everything can fall into pieces if we let our narrow ambitions ride roughshod over national interests,” as his supporters cheered him on, singing songs praising him and denigrating main rival Hichilema.

Free and fair?

Whether voter turnout or intimidation is a way of marring the results, many are saying that it will be difficult for such a tight race to be fair in view of the recent climate, according to Zambian political analyst Neo Simutanyi.

Writing in Africa Arguments Simutanyi says that violence carried out against opposition by ruling party cadres with the complicity of police is one issue. Another is the fact that opposition leaders have not been allowed to campaign through selective application of the Public Order Act which dates from the colonial era.

“It is used to restrict opposition activities such as holding of public meetings, rallies, and demonstrations,” writes Simutanyi.

“While the PF has been allowed to campaign continuously since 2016, members of the opposition are subjected to arrests and harassment when they try to meet supporters,” he adds.

Hichilema (referred to in the local press as HH) has been detained 15 times, including five months in 2017 when he was held incommunicado.

He reasons that the Electoral Commission’s decision to compile a new voter register in a period of just 38 days at the end of 2020 has skewed the voting process. Those registered in PF strongholds are 345,000 higher than before, while UPND strongholds have lost some 70,000 registered voters, he says.

It’s the economy

However, there was already discord amongst Zambians with the ruling party, PF. The vanity infrastructure projects haven’t brought the jobs promised. According to an Afrobarometer study done in late 2020, support for PF was cut in half, from 44 percent to 22 percent.

One of the most important issues for voters is the economy–the copper-rich country has embarked on a number of infrastructure projects with Lungu asking for help from China and a number of loans that Zambia is having trouble paying.

The President inaugurated the Chinese-funded Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka on Monday.

More than half of Zambians live in poverty and many cannot keep up with the cost of living.

Postponing the election

There were originally fears that one of the opposition candidates would withdraw from the election, which would postpone the polls, due to a constitutional decree. This has not happened, but Zambians on social media were convinced that this might happen, and could lead to unrest.

In a fair election, the incumbent cannot win. In an unfair election, the incumbent cannot lose. I explain why in this impartial but certainly not neutral analysis of #Zambia‘s 2021 election.#ZambiaDecides2021https://t.co/SstelZ1V2E

On Monday, Lungu said, “everything can fall into pieces if we let our narrow ambitions ride roughshod over national interests,” as his supporters cheered him on, singing songs praising him and denigrating main rival Hichilema.

A number of monitoring groups will be at polling stations, including the local Christian Churches Monitoring Group, which has been active on social media in promoting voter awareness.

All eyes will be on Zambia tomorrow to see how close the presidential race actually is, according to analysts.

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