Zambia joined the handful of African countries that have experienced three transfers of power through the ballot box when President Edgar Lungu conceded defeat to long-time opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema last week.
But the process was far from straightforward, and a smooth transition may not have happened had Hichilema not won by a massive margin — 2 810757 votes to Lungu’s 1 814 201. The landslide win emboldened the Electoral Commission of Zambia to declare him the winner and forced government leaders hoping to overturn their defeat to give up.
This was important because the election was conducted under the most difficult conditions in the country’s history.
First, the civic space was greatly diminished, as Lungu used the Public Order Act and police to deny the opposition space to mobilise. Second, the country witnessed growing lawlessness and violence, predominantly from governing party supporters. Third, the elections were held during the coronavirus pandemic, which was politicised as the electoral commission shut down rallies — and Hichilema was consistently blocked from campaigning in key areas — while Lungu continued campaigning by holding government meetings and “inspecting” development projects, activities that were not prohibited. Fourth, Lungu sought to divide the country that Kenneth Kaunda had managed to unite by playing the “tribal” card, hoping to stigmatise Hichilema and fragment the opposition.
Finally, the government took two decisions around voting day that caused deep consternation among opposition leaders and supporters. Days before the polls, the military were deployed around the country in an unprecedented move, sparking fears that the security forces would be used to repress post-election protests. Then, on election day itself, the government shut down access to social media apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, as high turnout indicated that they were on the way out, further increasing political tensions.
So how did the United Party for National Development (UPND) win against these odds?
Importantly, the opposition got off to a good start by teaming up with 10 partners to form the UPND Alliance. This helped to boost support for Hichilema in parts of the country outside of his “heartlands” — a trend started in the elections of 2015 and 2016. The UPND and civil society groups such as the Christian Churches Monitoring Group also did a good job of protecting the vote, reducing the scope for electoral fraud.
Hichilema’s cause was helped by Zambia’s economic difficulties, which convinced a wide range of voters that change was essential. Lungu’s increasingly authoritarian and irresponsible rule played into these trends, so that the election was not UPND vs the government, but the people vs the president. Efforts at bribing voters and divide-and-rule politics only hardened popular support for the opposition.
Against this backdrop, Hichilema’s landslide victory emboldened democratic institutions to stand up and be counted, and represents a real mandate for change. It also means that the new president is well aware that his tenure will be evaluated in terms of how he performs on the economy, on reducing corruption and on his promise to give the Zambian people back their rights and liberties.
Perhaps most importantly, Lungu’s defeat will be a constant reminder to the new government that the Zambian people have the power to change the government — and if they believe the UPND has let them down, they know how to use it.