Violence Taints Credibility of Zambian Presidential Election

  • Opposition rallies banned, indepedent Post newspaper closed
  • Economic slump may erode support for President Edgar Lungu

Violence and intimidation are threatening the credibility of Zambia’s presidential elections and the nation’s reputation as one of Africa’s most stable democracies.

The authorities have canceled some opposition rallies and shut down the independent Post newspaper -- a vocal government critic. Billboards and posters erected by both the ruling party and the opposition have been vandalized and torn down. President Edgar Lungu, 59, warned last month that “draconian measures” may be necessary to stem the violence that has claimed as many as six lives.

While nine candidates are vying for the presidency of Africa’s second-biggest copper producer in Thursday’s vote, the main contenders are Lungu, who heads the ruling Patriotic Front, and Hakainde Hichilema, the 54-year-old leader of the United Party for National Development. Lungu beat Hichilema by less than 28,000 votes in an election held in January last year after President Michael Sata died in office.

“The upcoming election will present a stern test of Zambia’s democratic credentials,” Ronak Gopaldas, head of country risk at FirstRand Ltd.’s Rand Merchant Bank, said in an interview in Lusaka, the capital. “The country has a history of free-and-fair elections and peaceful handovers of power, but recent incidents have raised eyebrows about whether the polls will be credible. There’s been a marked increase in political tensions in recent months.”

Economic Meltdown

While no credible opinion polls have been published, Lungu may face a public backlash over an economic meltdown that’s ensued as the price of copper tumbled. The metal accounts for more than 70 percent of Zambia’s export earnings, and thousands of miners have lost their jobs. The economy grew at the slowest pace since 1998 last year, the inflation rate exceeds 20 percent and businesses have been hobbled by daily power cuts.

Zambia’s kwacha weakened 2.1 percent to 10.475 per dollar by 5:15 a.m. in Lusaka, extending losses over the past 12 months to 25 percent. Yields on Zambia’s $1 billion of bonds due April 2024 dropped 16 basis points by 4:35 p.m. in Lusaka to 9.41 percent, the lowest on a closing basis in a year.

With Hichilema’s chances boosted after several senior PF members quit to campaign for him, he will probably win in the first round of voting, according to Clare Allenson, an Africa analyst Eurasia Group in Washington. Under the nation’s constitution, a run-off must be held within 37 days if no candidate win more than half the vote.

Ahmed Salim, an Africa analyst at Teneo Intelligence in Dubai, puts Lungu’s chances of winning at 55 percent, because of the intimidation directed against the opposition.

The violence has been aimed at ensuring opposition supporters either don’t vote or switch allegiance to the ruling party, according to Neo Simutanyi, the director of the Lusaka-based Center for Policy Dialogue.

“The Patriotic Front is aware that this is a close contest and the opposition has been gaining ground and that it will be very difficult for them to retain power,” Simutanyi said by phone. “They have resorted to heavy handedness. Radio and TV only broadcast pro-government propaganda. It’s enough to make you think that only the ruling party is standing in the elections.”

While Lungu has repeatedly called for a peaceful vote and pledged it would be free and fair, he’s warned that he would maintain order even if it meant being dictatorial. The president’s office didn’t respond to numerous requests for an interview.

‘Peaceful Nation’

“Zambia is a peaceful nation,” Lungu said in a statement on Tuesday. “I will not tolerate any person attempting to break the peace we have.”

Amos Chanda, Lungu’s spokesman, said there had only been isolated incidents of violence, and the UPND was partly responsible.

“The campaign has been largely free and fair,” he said in an interview in Lusaka on Thursday. “Whatever the outcome, I think it will be peaceful. The president has pledged to respect the outcome.”

Hichilema accused Lungu and the ruling party of trying to steal the election because they knew they would lose.

‘Polluted Environment’

“We are heading for trouble,” Hichilema said in an Aug. 6 interview in Lusaka. “The electoral environment has been polluted. How do you have free, fair, transparent and credible elections in such an environment where our party is not allowed to conduct meetings?”

Zambia has experienced several peaceful transitions of power since gaining independence from the U.K. in 1964. Kenneth Kaunda, its first president, stood down after losing elections to Fredrick Chiluba’s Movement for Multi-Party Democracy in 1991. Chiluba relinquished office in January 2002 and his chosen successor Levy Mwanawasa held power until he died in 2008. Rupiah Banda then took office, stepping down after he lost the 2011 elections to Sata and his Patriotic Front.

The violence, the clampdown on the media and the cancellation of opposition rallies are likely to be seen as an indicator of the ruling party using its incumbency to unfair advantage and raise doubts about integrity of the election, according to Catherine Musuva, country director at the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa in Lusaka.

“The stakes are certainly very high as the contest is very close,” she said in an e-mailed response to questions. “We can only hope that peace prevails and that violence does not become part of Zambia’s political culture.”

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