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Zambia has an election this week. Here’s what you need to know.

Voters aren’t happy about the country’s economic outlook or its external debt problem

- August 10, 2021

On Thursday, Zambia voters will decide whether to reelect President Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front (PF) to a third term, after an earlier ruling by the country’s top court that his bid wasn’t a breach of the two-term limit. But critics also accuse Lungu of manipulating the electoral register to disenfranchise voters in regions that support his main opponent, Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND).

Zambia watchers note these election irregularities and other concerns, many of which are symptomatic of longer-term patterns. Here’s what you need to know about this week’s elections in Zambia.

In 1991, the peaceful handover of power in Zambia signified one of the most enduring legacies of the 30-year presidency of Kenneth Kaunda, who died this year. After his defeat by the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), Kaunda conceded, heralding the onset of multiparty competition. Along with a similar presidential turnover in Benin, Zambia’s 1991 election marked a wave of democratic transitions in Africa.

Like Benin and other African countries, however, Zambia has since experienced a significant reversal of its democratic gains, as detailed in a recent Amnesty International report. In Zambia, democratic erosion — a term political scientist Larry Diamond defines as a decline in “electoral fairness, political pluralism, and civic space for opposition and dissent” — has been simmering for many years.

Populism hasn’t boosted Zambia’s democracy

An effective populist strategy by the PF’s charismatic founder, Michael Sata, helped the party rise to prominence in Zambia’s capital city Lusaka and in cities on the Copperbelt during the mid-2000s. Yet, as researchers observe in Latin America, populism creates new avenues of representation for marginalized constituencies, but also brings negative implications for democratic governance.

For one, the celebration of popular sovereignty and the direct linkages forged between a leader and the masses leads to a disdain for mediating institutions that might constrain the leader’s power. Soon after Sata won the 2011 elections, he breached judicial independence by replacing top judges — placing family members in some judicial posts — and attempted to deregister the MMD. New rules required nongovernmental organizations to re-register every five years and be vetted by the police.

Taking office after Sata’s death in 2014, Lungu closed down the independent media and introduced the Cyber Security Act — which many Zambians feared would restrict freedom of expression — but fell short of an effort to enhance executive power through a proposed constitutional amendment.

Because populism depends heavily on personalized leadership, it can also undermine democracy within political parties. After Sata’s death, wrangling within the PF led to many defections from the party until Lungu was selected as the party’s leader. But Lungu lacked Sata’s charisma or control over the party, in a scenario similar to the one facing Nicolás Maduro, who succeeded Venezuela’s populist leader Hugo Chávez. With threats from within his own party and from the UPND, which only narrowly lost the 2016 elections, critics charge that Lungu has relied on corruption and repression to retain support.

Spiraling debt has worsened Zambians’ economic grievances

Zambia’s debt problem has become a major issue during this year’s election. Almost 20 years after receiving $6 billion in debt relief under the World Bank Group’s Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative, Zambia defaulted in November on a $42.5 million Eurobond repayment.

Zambia’s external debt has risen rapidly since 2012. Like other African countries, Zambia increasingly has relied on issuing sovereign debt through Eurobonds and borrowing from China. Although much of the Eurobond funding went toward PF-backed infrastructure projects, the high cost of road construction far exceeded the median for the region, raising concerns about large-scale corruption in the procurement process.

A national survey by a local think tank revealed that most Zambians were worried about the country’s debt and blamed government corruption. Debt servicing composed much of the 2019 budget, squeezing out resources for goods and services. That same year, the kwacha — Zambia’s currency — depreciated dramatically, further increasing the debt service burden and leaving the government with limited foreign reserves to import electricity. This left Zambians facing blackouts lasting up to 17 hours a day.

Similarly, an analysis of recent Afrobarometer data revealed that 70 percent of Zambians think the government has managed the economy badly. Disappointment levels were most pronounced among urban residents, who historically backed the PF. In an effort to boost support among rural constituents, the government borrowed $145 million from state-owned banks in May to fund the Farmer Input Support Program (FISP), offering seed and fertilizer subsidies for farmers.

Social polarization has increased under PF rule

Under the Sata administration, the PF’s rural strongholds were largely Bemba-speaking provinces, including Northern province. My earlier research described how Sata discouraged rural Bembas from supporting earlier bids by Hichilema — a Tonga who derives much of his support from Southern, Western and Northwestern provinces — because of his ethnicity.

Lungu hails from the Nyanja-speaking Eastern Province. During his tenure, government appointments disproportionately have come from the Northern and Eastern provinces. Many of these government ministers, including vice-presidential candidate Nkandu Luo, reportedly have engaged in anti-Tonga hate speech.

Public opinion polls show that an increasing share of Zambians perceive that their ethnic group is treated unfairly by the government. Religious exclusion also is on the rise; both the failed constitutional amendment and the PF’s 2021 party manifesto declare Zambia a “Christian nation.”

Here’s what’s at stake in this election

Given concerns about irregularities, various international delegations will observe the elections, local organizations are conducting a parallel vote tabulation — and Hichilema, the main opposition candidate, is using a phone app and satellite system to enable 20,000 UPND election agents to monitor potential fraud.

Much is at stake in Zambia’s election: The fate of independent institutions and civic freedoms, rebuilding credibility with the international financial community and, most importantly, regaining the trust of Zambian citizens that their government genuinely prioritizes their best interests.

As in 1991, the election outcome could have widespread implications — for better or worse — that reverberate beyond Zambia’s borders.

Danielle Resnick is Senior Research Fellow and Governance Theme Leader at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). She is the author of several books, including “Urban Poverty and Party Populism in African Democracies” (Cambridge University Press, 2014).