Zambians are going to the polls on Thursday to choose their next president after an election campaign marred by violence and press blackouts, and against a backdrop of a tanking economy.
The candidates are the current president, Edgar Lungu, of the Patriotic Front (PF), who won an emergency election in 2015 by just 27,000 votes; and the businessman Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND), who is challenging for the presidency for the fifth time.
The vote is, in effect, a rerun of the 2015 election.In a country that prides itself on peaceful politics, both sides have been implicated in violence during the campaign. In July police opened fire on opposition supporters in the capital, Lusaka, prompting the electoral commission to suspend campaigning for 10 days.
Lungu enters the race with the usual advantages of an incumbent. State media have trumpeted his campaign messages, while outlets deemed too critical have been harassed or, in the case of the country’s leading newspaper, The Post, shut down. Lungu’s party has also been accused of appropriating state funds for political purposes and using state security services to intimidate opposition figures.
Hichelema, however, has a couple of trump cards of his own. A series of high-profile PF defectors have rallied to his cause, including Mwamba, Guy Scott and Mulenga Sata, the son of the late president Michael Sata, whose death in October 2014 prompted the January 2015 election to find a successor to serve the remainder of his term.
His main weapon, however, has been Zambia’s poor economic performance during Lungu’s short time in office.Growth has slowed from 7% to 3%, 10,000 jobs have been lost in the copper belt, Zambia’s industrial heartland, and the kwacha was the worst-performing currency in the world in 2015, dropping 42% against the dollar.
Whether Lungu is responsible for the poor state of the economy – he inherited many of the country’s problems and has only been in power for 18 months – has almost become a moot point, because Hichelema has been very effective at making the blame stick.