Edgar Lungu has been declared the winner in Zambia’s presidential elections, repelling a strong challenge from veteran rival Hakainde Hichilema amid opposition claims of electoral fraud.
The Electoral Commission announced that Lungu had gathered 1,860,877 votes, enough to cross the 50% threshold required to avoid a run off. Yet the opposition United Party for National Development, which officially scored 47.64%, has criticised the Electoral Commission for the time taken to count the results of Friday’s poll, raising fears of a sustained challenge to the outcome and potential unrest.
Lungu’s apparent victory brings an end to the bitter and fractious campaign for Africa’s second largest copper producer, which took place just a year after Lungu defeated Hichilema by a slender 27,000 votes in a by-election following the death of former president Michael Sata.
The buildup to the campaign was marred by sporadic violence and accusations that both the ruling PF and opposition UPND mobilised youth militias in a bid to prevent their opponents from campaigning. Hichilema has long argued that the government will attempt to exert undue pressure to prevail in a tight contest. The opposition leader has called for a recount in Lusaka and alleged the use of pre-marked ballot papers. State media swung aggressively behind Lungu in the months leading to the campaign, while independent newspapers have been targeted by the authorities.
The poll represents a victory for Lungu’s populist economic vision, including higher taxes on the country’s crucial mining sector and increased infrastructure investment, over the reform-minded outlook of Hichilema, who offered closer ties to the IMF and cuts to government expenditure. Hichilema’s future as UPND leader now looks in doubt after his fifth campaign failure.
The election hinged on the perceived economic performance of Lungu’s government. Since Lungu’s re-election, the country has been hit by a continued slump in global commodities demand, which has decimated the market for copper, Zambia’s primary export. The IMF predicts that the economy will grow by just 3.4% this year. International miners have shed thousands of jobs and put investment on hold amid an uncertain policy outlook and erratic power supply as widespread droughts hit hydroelectric facilities. Meanwhile, the government has failed to alight on a consistent tax code for the crucial mining sector. In February, the government attempted to reassure investors with a new variable tax code, which sets levies at between 4 and 6%. Hichilema has repeatedly placed the blame for the country’s economic woes on Lungu’s policy stances.
The outcome of the vote was expected to depend on whether densely populated areas in the northern Copperbelt region – the hardest hit by the commodities slump – continue to back Lungu’s Patriotic Front. Both the Copperbelt and Lusaka, the capital, are considered PF strongholds, while the UPND enjoys its strongest support in the South.
The election’s aftermath could determine whether Zambia continues on the broadly democratic trajectory that it has followed since the first multi-party elections in 1991. Lungu has hinted that he could suspend democracy to ensure peace in the aftermath of the vote, in comments that have drawn widespread criticism from opposition figures and observers.
The vote was held under a new electoral code, which specified that candidates must secure 50% of the vote in order to avoid a run-off. The high rate of mortality among former presidents – two have died in office in the past eight years – has also led to the introduction of compulsory running mates.