PRETORIA – The chances of political violence around Thursday’s elections in Zambia are “very high”, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) senior researcher Dimpho Motsamai said on Wednesday in Pretoria.
The Southern African region specialist said this was because the stakes were also very high in this “do or die” election and the two leading presidential candidates, President Edgar Lungu, the incumbent, and his main challenger, Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND), were running neck and neck.
There had already been more than 50 incidents of political violence during the first half of this year, Motsamai said in an online ISS seminar.
One of the aggravating factors was that the police were seen to be handling political protests and violence in a partisan way.
And the government has been accused of abusing the Public Order act by refusing permission for peaceful opposition demonstrations and rallies. This could spark violence.
Motsamai noted that Lungu had beaten his old rival Hichilema by less than two percent in their last contest, the presidential by-election in January 2015, following the death in office of President Michael Sata.
Since then the UPND had been strengthened by the defection of several top leaders of Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF) to its rival party, after their faction lost the internal fight to select the PF’s candidate in the 2015 elections.
This year for the first time, a presidential candidate would have to win an absolute majority of the vote, which was unlikely because there were nine candidates and because of the closeness of the race between Lungu and Hichilema.
So a rerun, which had to be held within 37 days, was likely. She predicted that if there was a rerun, Lungu would probably win by attracting the most backing of smaller parties and candidates.
Motsamai said another possible flashpoint could be if anyone disputed the results. She noted that Lungu had recently appointed both the head of the electoral commission and the president of the Constitutional Court. Both were from Lungu’s eastern provincial region and so were considered partisan.
Both occupied crucial positions in the elections and the Constitutional Court was the final arbiter of electoral disputes.
Lungu had also recently appointed family member Mungeni Mulenga as deputy president of the Constitutional Court. She had previously ruled in his favour in the internal succession fight in the PF.
Motsamai said if there were long delays in announcing the election results, as in the past, this could also raise tensions.
Another potential flashpoint could result from Zambians also voting on Thursday in a referendum on proposed changes to the constitution, to include new civil and political rights.
The problem was that only the 6.7 million people on the voters’ roll could vote in the presidential, parliamentary and other elections for political office, whereas 7.5 million were eligible to vote in the referendum.
This could create an opportunity for manipulation of the results, the opposition had complained.
She noted that the UPND was already warning that the election would be rigged, adding to the tension.
The elections were also taking place against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis in 10 years, mainly caused by the low international copper price, Zambia’s chief foreign income earner.
The cost of living was high, many people could not afford basic services and a “staggering” 60 percent of Zambians were living below the poverty line.
Nevertheless there had been very little debate about alternative economic policies in the campaign. Lungu is considered a populist who has spent a lot on infrastructure and services – significantly increasing the national debt.
He has now been forced to promise austerity measures in order to secure an IMF loan but Motsamai said he had not yet really delivered on these promises.
Hichilema, a successful businessman, has promised to cut public spending, including the civil service wage bill, if elected.
But Motsamai said, as usual, the election would be decided much more on personalities and ethnic/tribal affiliations than economic policies.
She noted that the PF had chosen last year to elect Lungu, an easterner, as its candidate, partly to broaden its appeal beyond its traditional power base among the northern Bemba people. But she said the PF was still very much a Bemba party.
Hichilema is a Tonga from the south and that is still where the UPND draws most of its support from.