Despite being considered one of the most stable democracies of southern Africa, Zambia is facing a serious political crisis ahead of local, parliamentary, presidential elections and a constitutional referendum. With only a week left before the polls, changes to the constitution, questionable appointments to the Constitutional Court and an expected close election makes many observers worried that a contested result is now an inevitable outcome.
A bastion of political stability in the region is being tested.
When Michael Sata became president in 2011, it marked a significant development in Zambian politics. On a continent where one party tends to dominate domestic elections, Sata’s presidency marked the first time since the introduction of multi-party democracy in Zambia that an opposition party took control.
But Sata’s death in 2014 while still in office also created issues for the ruling Patriotic Front. Uncertainty over the interpretation of the constitutional requirements of who could be president led to a tense by-election in January 2015 where former Minister of Defense Edgar Lungu narrowly defeated Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND). The in-party fighting following Sata’s death, worsening economic conditions and severe drought has wakened the Patriotic Front’s standing with many Zambians. Thus, with the sitting president having only been in office for 18 months, next week’s election is seen as a replay of the January 2015 poll but with far more at stake.
Already tensions have overflown at several political rallies. Following weeks of accusations of violence by both sides, the electoral commission used its power to suspend campaigning for ten days in July after police opened fire on UPND supporters, killing one. But despite the drastic measure of the electoral commission and repeated calls for calm, harassment and instigation continues throughout the country.
Adding to the concerns is the apparent manipulation with the press in covering the election. In June, the government shut down The Post, the longest running and largest independent newspaper in the country. Although the government claimed the closure was due to a tax dispute, The Post’s reputation as being critical of the government and its closure at a critical time in the election process has led many to believe the government is trying to silent opposition ahead of the polls. Recent comments by the Information and Broadcasting Services Minister for public censorship of opposition rallies by public media in order to ensure the “correct” information is being spread adds to the concerns of voter manipulation.
All of this has come as a shock for Zambia, typically seen as one of southern Africa’s biggest success stories.
After years of cultivating a reputation as politically and economically stable, much of that is coming apart at the seams as the election draws near. Most analysts are now expecting UPND victory, albeit likely a close one without a strong mandate for Hichilema. What remains to be seen now is that after a disgraceful and raucous campaign, whether the election itself will be fair and free, and whether the loser (and their supporters) is able to accept defeat graciously.
“The tenacity of ordinary Zambians in resisting provocation and avoiding political violence over the last 30 years has been remarkable,” wrote Zambian political analyst Sishuwa Sishuwa back in June. “One can only hope that this record endures and that the mounting irregularities around the current elections do not test the patience of the opposition and the general public to breaking point.”