Zambia Counts Votes After Frenzied Presidential Campaign

  • Economic slump dents President Lungu’s odds of re-election
  • Observers report isolated incidents of violence during vote

Ballot counting in Zambia was under way in a hotly contested election pitting President Edgar Lungu against challenger Hakainde Hichilema after a campaign that a group of churches described as “a step backward” for one of Africa’s most stable democracies.

The run-up to Thursday’s largely peaceful election for the president as well as lawmakers, mayors and local councilors was marred by violence that claimed as many as six lives. The Christian Churches Monitoring Group, which deployed 1,674 observers, said it received 131 reports of violence, intimidation and other irregularities, 52 of them confirmed, during the vote.

“All of these were isolated incidents,” the group said in a statement in Lusaka, the capital. “While the pre-election environment did not call into question the credibility of the overall electoral process, the 2016 general elections represent a step backward for the country.”

While Lungu’s administration has improved the country’s road system and built new clinics and schools, a growth slump, soaring food prices and job losses on the nation’s copper mines have dented his chances of winning a full five-year term. Fewer than 28,000 votes separated the two men when they contested a snap poll in January last year, after President Michael Sata died in office. The ruling Patriotic Front and Hichilema’s United Party for National Development have blamed each other for the campaign clashes.

“These elections will most likely go to a runoff,” Sinethemba Zonke, a political analyst at advisory firm africapractice in Johannesburg, said by e-mail. “A runoff would lead to increased political tension on the ground and could result in violent skirmishes.”

Lungu and Hichilema, were among nine candidates who ran for the presidency of Africa’s second-biggest copper producer. The new administration will have to try to revive an economy that’s growing at its slowest pace since 1998 due to power shortages and a slide in the price of copper, which accounts for more than 70 percent of export earnings. It also faces negotiating a bail-out package from the International Monetary Fund to help bolster the nation’s foreign reserves.

Weakened Kwacha

Zambia’s kwacha has weakened 25 percent against the dollar over the past 12 months, the fourth-worst performance in Africa, pushing the inflation rate to more than 20 percent. Yields on Zambia’s $1 billion of bonds due April 2024 were unchanged at 9.46 percent on Friday, close to the lowest level in a year. Glencore Plc and First Quantum Minerals Ltd. are among international companies with operations in Zambia.

Razor-wire barricades were erected on the road running past the national results center in Lusaka and access was controlled by baton-wielding riot police wearing blue helmets. Last year, police used tear gas to disperse opposition protesters who gathered outside the center to protest delays in releasing the results.

About 6.7 million people registered to cast ballots in the country of 16.2 million. A presidential candidate must win more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.

Peaceful Vote

The Zambia Elections Information Center, which deployed 5,998 observers, described the vote as generally peaceful despite some clashes between voters and the police and breaches of the electoral code.

Lungu, a 59-year-old lawyer, has pledged to improve energy supply, build more roads and universities and diversify the economy away from copper if re-elected. Hichilema, 54, an economist and businessman who has failed in four previous bids for the presidency, has said he will revive growth, promote investment and ensure state funds are better spent.

“Both parties have approached the election as a do-or-die affair, which has also been reflected in the recent upsurge of political violence,” Dimpho Motsamai, a researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, said in an e-mailed report. “Prospects of violence after the election and during the run-off cannot be ruled out.”

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