Tensions high as Zambia heads to the polls

Zambians cast their vote today in a historic five-ballot election. Given the recent upsurge in violence, will parties respect the outcome?

Zambians head to voting stations today in a historic five-ballot poll to elect the country’s president, members of Parliament, mayors and councillors.

The Zambian Constitution was amended and adopted in 2015, which means these elections take place under a new legal framework. A 50%+1 threshold for winning the presidential vote has since been introduced. The winner therefore needs to win not only the highest number of votes, but must also secure a simple majority of the total votes cast.

Alongside the national poll is a fifth ballot; a national referendum on the Bill of Rights. This allows the Zambian public to choose whether or not Parliament can amend Part Three of the Constitution – which deals with individual, civic and political rights – in order to complete the constitution-making process. The outcome is crucial given that the Bill of Rights enshrines and protects certain individual rights, including from government involvement.

The contents of the proposed Bill of Rights will be finalised in Parliament after the elections. This would be Zambia’s first national referendum in 47 years, and the first to be managed by its electoral body, the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ), since its establishment in 1996.

The 2016 elections are the most challenging in Zambia’s recent history

Some 7.5 million Zambians are eligible to vote, of whom a total of 6 698 372 have registered for the 11 August polls. This marks an increase of about 1.5 million voters from the last national elections in 2011. Voting in the referendum does not require one to be a registered voter – only to have a national identity card.

The figures are important, as there has always been controversy around the integrity of the voter register. This mostly relates to duplication and weak verification controls. But beyond the register, there have also been concerns around voter turnout.

The country saw low voter turnout in the past three elections – this despite high registration numbers. In the 2015 presidential elections, for instance, turnout was at 32%. This had been higher at 53.65% in 2011; and 45.4% for 2008. Low voter turnout can undermine the democratic legitimacy of an incoming regime.

Conducting the national poll is a massive operation for the ECZ. The country is divided into 10 provinces, 150 constituencies, 103 districts and 1 624 wards. There are 7 700 polling stations and 10 818 polling streams.

Nine political parties are contending for the presidential vote, with the incumbent President Edgar Lungu of the governing Patriotic Front (PF) and Hakainde Hichilema from the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) as the frontrunners.

Incidents of electoral and political violence have been escalating in various parts of the country in the run-up to the elections – particularly between UPND and PF supporters. This comes despite all political parties having signed various peace accords and pledges aimed at preventing violence during the elections.

Civil society and opposition parties say the timing for Zambia's referendum is bad

As one of the first countries to introduce multiparty politics in Southern Africa in the early 1990s, Zambia has managed to build strong foundations for a competitive political system. The Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) dominated Zambian politics for almost 20 years, but there was a change in the country’s leadership in September 2011 when Michael Sata’s PF won the elections. The incumbent president from the MMD, Rupiah Banda, conceded defeat and allowed a smooth transfer of power to Sata.

Prior to Sata’s victory, Zambia experienced a turbulent period when opposition parties contested the 2001 and 2008 election results. A presidential by-election was conducted in January 2015 following Sata’s death, where Lungu defeated the UPND candidate by only 27 000 votes. Historically, there is a pattern of narrow margins in presidential victories.

The 2016 elections are the most complicated and challenging in Zambia’s recent history. The first reason for this is the timing of the referendum – conducted alongside the national poll.

As mentioned, this national referendum is a first for Zambia. Civil society organisations and opposition parties argue are that the timing is bad and that there has not been sufficient public education about it. Opposition parties further argue that the referendum should have been held separately, and that it stands to be politicised.

The government, however, contends that the approach saves money. There is merit to the argument. The initial constitution-making process was long and expensive, and a separate referendum at the back of this process would have brought about additional delays and costs. This may have been to the detriment of dealing with other, pressing needs – given that the country is facing its worst economic crisis in more than 10 years.

Zambia is facing its worst economic crisis in more than 10 years

But the concerns raised are also valid. Ignorance, suspicion and fear dominate discussions on the referendum, according to McDonald Chipenzi, an electoral expert and former director of the Foundation for Democratic Process. According to Chipenzi, the laws, regulations and procedures guiding the referendum have not been adequately shared with Zambians, and the referendum will be divisive with people voting along party lines.

‘The likelihood of manipulating the elections using the referendum is high,’ he says. ‘Those voting in a referendum do not need to be registered voters but only need to posses a national identity card. They don’t have a designated polling station and can vote anywhere around the country. The referendum may also flop if it doesn’t meet the required threshold of 50% in favour.’

Another ‘threshold’ condition that challenges the elections is the 50%+1 requirement for winning the presidential vote. The PF government expressed their misgivings about it during the constitution-making process, since it would decrease their chances of winning in the upcoming elections.

At the peak of its popularity, the PF won 42% of the total votes cast at the country's last polls in 2011. No party has amassed an outright win in the last four national polls, and a re-run is likely. A re-run has to take place within 37 days in the event of there being no outright winner.

Lungu has only been in power for a year and half, and is seeking a full term for the PF and himself. For his opponent, Hichilema, this is largely perceived as his final shot. He is running for presidency for the fifth time – also at a time when the UPND is at its strongest.

Like with the most recent presidential elections, battleground provinces will determine the victor, and the extent to which the UPND has been able to penetrate PF strongholds, and vice versa. The PF has also split since the last 2015 presidential election, with influential figures like its former vice president Guy Scott, the country’s former defence minister Geoffrey Mwamba and the late president’s son, Mulenga Sata, all defecting to the UPND.

Both parties have approached the election as a 'do-or-die' affair, which has also been reflected in the recent upsurge of political violence across the country. Last month, the ECZ banned campaigning for a week in some districts due to growing cases of violence.

Lungu has signalled that he might use ‘draconian means’ to ensure the country remains peaceful after the polls. The opposition has labelled the statement as aggressive in the context of managing tensions in an election, and say that any action to that effect would subvert the constitution and plunge the country into further chaos. Prospects of violence after the election and during the run-off cannot be ruled out either.

These may also have to do with how electoral disputes are managed and adjudicated; both require a great deal of objectivity and impartiality, and this will be an additional test for the ECZ and the courts.

Dimpho Motsamai, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis, ISS Pretoria

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