Zambia goes to the polls on Thursday to elect a president, MPs, mayors or council chairpersons, and councillors. The general elections will be conducted alongside a referendum.
The referendum will ask Zambians to decide on whether or not to amend the Constitution to enhance the Bill of Rights and whether or not to repeal and replace article 79 of the Constitution, which stipulates what kind of constitutional amendments must be put to a vote.
Zambia is hailed as one of Africa’s successful democracies, which makes its elections of particular interest to observers. Since the reintroduction of multiparty politics in 1990, the country has experienced changes in power between the ruling party and the opposition as well as peaceful transfer of power and acceptance of election results by both winners and losers.
But the 2016 elections have generated more interest than usual for several reasons. First, the presidential election is projected to be a tight race and its outcome unpredictable. Although there are nine presidential candidates, the contest will be a two-horse race between President Edgar Lungu and Hakainde Hichilema.
Lungu, who is running on a Patriotic Front (PF) ticket, was elected in a by-election in 2015 to complete President Michael Sata’s five-year term following his death in 2014. Hichilema is a four-time contender from the biggest opposition party, the United Party for National Development (UPND).
Lungu defeated Hichilema with a narrow margin of just over 27 000 votes in 2015 so this is undoubtedly a high-stakes election. With more than a million newly registered voters, both candidates are working hard to win over first-time voters, even as they hope not to lose support in their strongholds.
Second, the elections will be conducted under an amended Constitution enacted in January this year. Key new constitutional provisions touching on the forthcoming elections include the introduction of an absolute majority system with a 50%-plus-one vote threshold for the presidential election; a presidential running mate; and minimum academic qualifications to be eligible to run for political office.
Third, the run-up to the polls has been characterised by the fragmentation of political parties. The Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), which led Zambia for two decades after the Kenneth Kaunda era and gave the country three presidents, splintered into two factions because of internal wrangling. The PF, which was an opposition party until it won the 2011 elections, was also ruptured after the falling-out that started during the Sata succession battle in 2014 saw key former PF leaders defecting to the UPND and other parties in 2016.
Fourth, these elections will be taking place in a more polarised electoral environment than previous elections if the electioneering period is anything to go by. Despite the signing of two peace accords by the various political parties, the campaigns were marred by the defacing of campaign materials, hate speech and unprecedented violence, resulting in a 10-day suspension of campaigns in parts of Lusaka in July by the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ).
The ruling party and the opposition have accused each other of being behind the electoral violence, which has given rise to fears that the credibility of the elections could be in jeopardy and that Zambia’s longstanding peace and stability could be at risk.
Finally, the fact that the referendum will be taking place at the same time as the elections is also attracting attention. Of interest is how the referendum, the first since 1969, will affect the outcome of the referendum itself and that of the election.
Supporters of holding the two simultaneously have argued that it will be cost-effective as ballot papers will be produced together and the same polling officials and polling stations will be used. But critics have said that holding the two jointly could present logistical challenges. Furthermore, they have pointed to the danger of the referendum issue being politicised during campaigns or being viewed as an issue being pushed by the government of the day.
As the polls approach and with all the interest they have generated for historical and other reasons, a fundamental question is whether democracy has truly taken hold in Zambia. These elections, the seventh since the advent of democracy, are taking place against the backdrop of a fraying economy, which is estimated will grow at 3% in 2016; an energy crisis that has translated into severe power shortages; a rising cost of living; high poverty levels of more than 60%; high unemployment; and weak governance institutions.
Without discounting the development of democracy in Zambia over the past 25 years, the chances of the country’s democracy surviving remain tentative in the prevailing economic environment of Africa’s second-leading producer of copper. Scholars of democracy such as Adam Przeworski have convincingly argued that economic development makes democracies endure. The economic performance after these elections will be more telling about the durability of Zambia’s democracy than the election issues themselves.
Catherine Musuva is the country director of the Zambia office of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa