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Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Zambia’s election

- August 9, 2016
Supporters of Edgar Lungu, Zambia’s incumbent president and leader of the ruling Patriotic Front party, gather Aug. 8 in Lusaka ahead of the elections. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images)

Zambians go to the polls Thursday to elect a president for the second time in 19 months. The death of President Michael Sata in October 2014 triggered a special by-election in January 2015. President Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front (PF), Zambia’s ruling party, narrowly won that by-election. Lungu hopes to extend his rule five more years.

In addition to electing a head of state, Zambians will choose members of parliament and municipal council representatives, and vote in a referendum on whether to amend the Bill of Rights.

Nine candidates are running for the presidency. There haven’t been any recent nationally representative opinion polls in Zambia, but many believe the competition is down to current president Lungu and Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND). During last year’s contest, the difference between Lungu and Hichilema was a mere 1.7 percentage points. The Movement for Multiparty Democracy, the party that ruled Zambia from 1991 to 2011, has not fielded a candidate this time around.

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There are new electoral rules

Thursday’s polls will be the first held under new electoral rules: The winner of the presidential election needs to garner more than 50 percent of the popular vote to prevent a runoff. And, for the first time, each candidate is required to have a vice-presidential running mate.

The 50 percent threshold requirement addresses the fact that Zambia has since 2001 elected “minority” presidents. For example, Levy Mwanawasa won the presidency in 2001 despite 70 percent of the electorate having voted against him.

The VP running mate requirement removes the need to hold costly by-elections in the wake of a president’s death or resignation. In the past eight years, Zambia had to hold two unscheduled presidential by-elections because there was no VP provision.

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There are also many new voters

For the first time since the 2011 elections, the Electoral Commission of Zambia has updated the voter’s register — this was not updated for the unexpected 2015 election.

The new voter roll contains an additional 1.5 million voters, who will certainly influence the outcome. Three of the top five provinces with the biggest absolute gains in new voters (Lusaka, Copperbelt and Eastern) are in PF strongholds.


Data: Electoral Commission of Zambia. (Grieve Chelwa and Kim Yi Dionne/The Monkey Cage)

Who turns out to vote will shape the outcome

Zambia is not particularly known for high voter turnout. For example, only 32 percent of voters turned out to vote in last year’s presidential by-election. But what matters Thursday won’t be so much the national turnout as the turnout in each candidate’s “stronghold.”

In last year’s election, the PF won in six provinces while the UPND won in the remaining four provinces. More importantly, turnout was higher in UPND provinces than in PF provinces. In Southern Province, for instance, almost half of all registered voters turned out.


Zambia’s 2015 presidential by-election support and turnout. Data: Electoral Commission of Zambia (Grieve Chelwa and Kim Yi Dionne/The Monkey Cage)

The low turnout in PF strongholds last year suggests some sort of “protest vote” among the party faithful. After all, Edgar Lungu wasn’t the candidate elected into power in 2011. Moreover, the PF was rocked by an acrimonious succession process that threatened the very existence of the party following Michael Sata’s death.

The UPND will be hoping for a repeat of the 2015 turnout patterns this Thursday.

Mobilizing urban voters could tip the scales for PF (or maybe not)

The PF is in many ways an “urban” party. Half of the total tally that ushered them into power in 2011 came from Lusaka and Copperbelt, the two provinces in Zambia with the largest urban populations. However, the knowledge that urban support is fickle is likely keeping PF strategists up at night. Furthermore, Facebook is awash with images of multitudes attending UPND rallies in Lusaka and Copperbelt, although it’s not clear that this represents a real swing of public opinion away from the PF.

Poor economic performance may hurt the PF

Urban support, however, is closely tied to economic performance.

Unfortunately for Lungu, his presidency has coincided with serious economic challenges. Things are so dire that the country is widely expected to initiate an IMF-sanctioned austerity program immediately after the elections.

Particularly worrying for the PF is that annual food price inflation has been running at double digits since last October, with the greatest impact felt in urban centers.

To make matters worse, a crippling electricity crisis and low copper prices have led to job losses on the Copperbelt, a very important support base for the PF.

On the other hand, the PF has, over the past five years, embarked on an ambitious infrastructure development program building roads, schools, hospitals and bridges. Still, it is unclear whether the new infrastructure projects will be enough to compensate for the effects of a weak economy in the eyes of voters.

Running mates and high-profile endorsements

The choice of running mates by either candidate might prove decisive on Thursday. Lungu has opted for Inonge Wina, the current vice president. Ms. Wina comes from Western Province, a UPND stronghold.

Hichilema has settled on Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba, a former influential member of the PF and close confidant of the late Michael Sata. More important, Mr. Mwamba comes from northern Zambia, a PF stronghold, and is a relative and ally of the Chitimukulu. The Chitimukulu is the influential paramount chief of the Bemba, the largest ethnic group in Zambia.

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Hichilema also has received a number of high-profile endorsements strategically meant to boost his appeal in PF strongholds. The late Michael Sata’s son, Mulenga Sata, and nephew, Miles Sampa, both endorsed Hichilema. Both were deputy ministers in the PF government. Guy Scott, who acted as president immediately following Sata’s death, has also endorsed Hichilema.

All things considered, Thursday’s race will be a close one — making it difficult to predict a winner. It is also not clear that the contest will be settled in the first round.

Grieve Chelwa, a Zambian national, is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for African Studies at Harvard University and is a contributing editor for Africa Is A Country. He holds a PhD in economics. Follow him on Twitter at @gchelwa.