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Two surveys, two wildly different predictions for Zambia’s election

“Survey gives it to Lungu in 2021 vote”, ran the headline on Monday in the Times of Zambia, the country’s state-owned newspaper. The story reported on a just-released opinion poll, which shows that President Edgar Lungu will win the upcoming presidential election, which is scheduled for 12 August.

The survey, conducted by the Political Science Association of Zambia, in collaboration with two “international think-tanks”, suggests that the president will receive 44.5% of the vote. His main rival, opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, will get just 30.3%.

The numbers appear to be good news for Lungu and his governing Patriotic Front party. But perhaps they are too good to be true.

“The poll they put together is so bad only the most committed government supporter could think it is genuine,” wrote Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham, on the Democracy in Africa website.

As Cheeseman observes, the so-called international think-tanks involved in producing the survey — London-based Farraline Public Relations and Washington, DC-based Media Theory — are actually both public relations firms that specialise in reputation management. And the Political Science Association of Zambia is a newly formed organisation with no track record of conducting surveys on this scale

Moreover, he argues, their methodology is flawed. The survey is conducted in just five of Zambia’s 10 provinces, and gives undue weight to Luapula Province, where the president is popular.

The Mail & Guardian asked the Political Science Association of Zambia to respond to these allegations, but had not received anything prior to publication.

“The Political Science Association of Zambia poll isn’t credible enough to tell us anything about who will win the 2021 elections,” said Cheeseman. “But it does tell us a lot about the election race. It suggests that the government and its allies know that they face an uphill battle to win in August; that they are planning to use a variety of misinformation strategies as part of their campaign; and, that they are working with foreign PR companies — and have co-opted a number of academics — to achieve this.”

Erosion of support

Another survey, by Afrobarometer, tells a very different story about the ruling party’s popularity.

Afrobarometer conducts public attitude surveys in more than 30 African countries, and has been doing so since 1999. Its data is used by the likes of the World Bank and the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, and it has partnered with some of Africa’s most respected research institutions including South Africa’s Institute for Justice and Reconciliation; Benin’s the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy, Ghana’s Center for Democratic Development; and Kenya’s Institute for Development Studies.

In December, Afrobarometer conducted its Round 8 survey in Zambia. It interviewed a nationally-representative sample of 1 200 Zambians — in all of the 10 provinces — asking them a wide range of questions about their attitudes to everything from corruption and climate change to taxation and traditional leaders.

Afrobarometer also asked about current voting preferences. In response to the question ‘If general elections were held tomorrow, which party’s candidate would you vote for?’, Only 22.9% of respondents said that they would vote for the Patriotic Front (down from 44.8% in Afrobarometer’s 2017 survey). 25.2% said that they would vote for the opposition, the United Party for National Development.

45.6% of respondents either refused to answer or said they did not know.

In an analysis of the data, Jeremy Seekings and Hangala Siachiwena — researchers with the University of Cape Town’s Institute for Democracy, Citizenship and Public Policy in Africa — said that this adds up to bad news for Lungu. 

“This erosion of support seems to be widespread, among both urban and rural voters. A large minority of voters — much larger than in previous surveys — declined to declare who they would vote for if elections were held. Most of these ‘undeclared’ voters are dissatisfied with the country’s economic performance under the present government,” they wrote. 

“In the absence of a shift in voters’ attitudes and preferences during the election campaign, it seems likely that Lungu and the Patriotic Front will perform much more weakly in the elections scheduled for August 2021 than in preceding elections.”

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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