Zambian Presidential Election 2021 – Rare Victory for Democracy in Africa

There has been a general backsliding of democracy around the world in the last decade. However, this year’s Zambian presidential election has brought some hope that this trend can be reversed. President-elect Hakainde Hichilema defeated incumbent Edgar Lungu in the face of a variety of obstacles and an increasingly authoritarian administration.

Background and slide towards autocracy

Landlocked in southern Africa, Zambia was once hailed as an example for other African countries after long-time President Kenneth Kaunda stepped down after 27 years to allow multi party elections. It achieved relative stability and a strong economy resulting in a surge on investor confidence in the early 2000s. In 2011, the country completed another peaceful transition of power. The Patriotic Front took over from the MMD and have been in power ever since.

In 2014 the Democracy Index rated Zambia at 6.39/10 and a “flawed democracy” (free and fair elections but with issues like minor media infringement and voter suppression). By 2020, it had slid all the way to 4.86 and a “hybrid regime” (regular election fraud, significant pressure on the free press and opposition). In the worldwide Democracy Index rankings it dropped from 67 to 99 in this time. The V-Dem institute found that democracy in Zambia had eroded at the 10th quickest rate in the world between 2009 and 2019.

President Lungu has taken a series of actions which have dented democracy in the country. He pushed through a change in the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. As a result of the gathering of social media opposition to the government, he passed a draconian cyber security law. Activists have come under increasing risk of arrest. During the campaign, the military was deployed in key areas leading to accusations of voter intimidation. Prime TV, a news outlet critical of the Lungu administration, was shut down by the government in April 2020.

An Economy in Freefall

Only 15 years ago, Zambia had one of Africa’s strongest economies. A decade of mismanagement by the Lungu administration compounded by covid and stagnating copper prices has left the country with spiralling inflation, debt and food prices. Lungu had a fixation on big infrastructure projects. He borrowed heavily to build two stadiums, along with health facilities, and big road projects – all of which did little to grow the economy, provide jobs or improve people’s lives.

Zambia is Africa’s 2nd largest producer of copper – it makes up 70% of Zambian exports. However, the price of copper dropped dramatically in 2011 (coinciding with the election of the Patriotic Front into power) and has not recovered. With commodity prices still low and a pandemic stunting growth, even a competent administration would be struggling to overcome these challenges.

Additionally the way in which the aforementioned infrastructure projects were funded and built was disastrous. Zambia borrowed from China (the nation’s biggest bilateral creditor, investor, and trading partner) to fund the projects. Chinese firms were paid directly to complete the building and skilled workers were all brought in from China. Zambian businesses got little work and Zambian workers weren’t provided with jobs or training. Lumped with massive projects no one wanted and living in a country suddenly massively in debt to China, ordinary Zambians got little out of this arrangement. This tactic has been used by China in the past in order to seize control of strategically important infrastructure (such as ports in Kenya and Sri Lanka) when countries run out of money. China has large stakes in the copper industry, a commodity they are in need of for the huge Chinese manufacturing industry.

The result of all this has been a 353% depreciation in the Zambian Kwacha in the last decade, 24% inflation, 33% rise in food prices since this time last year, a 10 year high in unemployment and spiralling debt of more than $12bn which it defaulted on in November. The pandemic compounded these issues and with just 2.9% of the country vaccinated there is no end in sight.

The Challenger

Hakainde Hichilema is a familiar face on the Zambian political scene. He has led the liberal United Party for National Development (UPND) since 2006. He has run for president six times, each run more successful than the previous. In 2016, he drew 47% of the vote, losing by just three points. At the time he made accusations of vote rigging. Hichilema grew up in a thatched house in a small town in southern Zambia – something he has made a large part of his platform. He attended high school he won a scholarship to attend the University of Zambia before going to the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. After that, he became an economist and served as chief executive director at PWC Zambia and Grant Thornton Zambia.

In 2017 police ransacked his house, gassed his family and arrested him on suspicion of treason. The offense was that his motorcade had blocked the presidential motorcade – a minor traffic offence at most. He suffered brutal treatment including solitary confinement and the spraying of his genitals with pepper spray. Heavy pressure from protestors, the Catholic Church, and the international community led to his release after four months.

His platform revolves around tackling the countries dire economic circumstances, using his financial experience and knowledge. He and his party blame corruption, political patronage in the public sector, and a lack of visionary leadership for many of the problems facing the country. “Good governance and prudent economic management” is the name of the game.

The UPND Youth drove his candidacy. They are highly active on social media. This means that ordinary Zambians were able to access a different narrative from the one being presented by many of the news outlets that Lungu was leaning on. They managed to motivate hundreds of thousands of young Zambians to turn out for Hichilema.

The Result

Even in the early stages it was clear that Hichilema was going to win, making sweeping gains across the country. The youth vote drove the victory, making up 50% of the electorate and causing 71% turnout – 15 points higher than 2016 and unusually high for often politically apathetic African countries. Early indications from the Lungu camp were not looking good. They were showing every sign of resistance.

Opposition party representatives stepped in to stop the electoral commission publishing irregular results in some areas. Lungu pointed to limited violence in pro-Hichilema areas (exaggerated by the pro-Lungu media pre-election) as a reason to annul results. Then going further, he declared that the election was not free and fair. Investigative news outlet News Diggers reported that Lungu was under pressure from aides and diplomats not to accept defeat. However, hours later Lungu officially conceded following the official declaration of Hichilema as winner.

Both the African Union and EU had observers at the polling stations and counts. According to them, the peaceful conduct and outcome of election day and the count was satisfactory. However they did note the uneven playing field created by the Patriotic Front and Lungu.

With the count at 99.36% Hakainde Hichilema had won 2,810,757 votes (59.38%) compared to Edgar Lungu’s 1,814,201 (38.33%).

The Future

Given the rapid slide into authoritarianism in Zambia this election was a massive success. Voting and counting took place with minimal interference and voters went to the polls despite a increasingly dangerous regime. Zambia now has a chance to join its neighbor Botswana as a functioning free democracy, of which there are so few in Africa.

The task certainly isn’t easy. Hichilema will have to make cuts to spending which could be initially painful for ordinary people in order to rectify the financial situation. He will also have to persuade the IMF that they deserve a bailout. Initial signs are good with the Kwacha rallying following the election. Rooting out corruption in the government and public sector will be tough, as will revaluating their relationship with China. The freeing of the press may be faster with Prime TV already returning. In terms of a peaceful transition, Lungu met with Hichilema and appeared in good spirits. Whatever his previous actions, his last actions will have helped rebuild the democracy he helped break.

There are hopes that this election could provide a rallying point for opposition activists in other southern African nations. Indeed, the leader of the opposition in Zimbabwe, Nelson Chamisa, along with prominent journalists and activists are already using this as a way to rally apathetic voters in their country ahead of the 2023 General Election.

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