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Zambia's election: What's at stake for the country's economy?

Whoever wins Tuesday will have to tackle Zambia's billion-dollar debt and the prospect of falling copper prices. Ruling party candidate Edgar Lungu has maintained a slight edge that many attribute to his endorsement from the late president. 

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A digital billboard in Lusaka, Zambia, displays an election message depicting the presidential candidate Edgar Lungu. Zambians go to the polls on Tuesday following the death of President Michael Sata in October.

Rogan Ward/Reuters

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Zambians head to the polls to pick their next president Tuesday with the hope of maintaining stability in a country rattled by the death in office of former President Michael Sata last October.

An unclear constitutional succession directive following Mr. Sata’s death has defined an expensive, divisive presidential by-election. It's been marred by infighting in the ruling Patriotic Front, and caused violent clashes rare in this southern African country known for its political stability and peaceful transitions. 

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The new president will have to handle Zambia's billion-dollar debt and deal with falling copper prices in Africa's second-largest producing nation. Copper accounts for about 10 percent of gross domestic product and a quarter of government revenue, according to the the International Monetary Fund. Also at stake is a new mining tax that triples royalties on open-pit mines and has further soured relations between the ruling government and mining companies. 

Ruling party candidate Edgar Lungu, who is also the justice and defense minister, holds a slight advantage a day before the vote, even though he faces stiff competition from United Party for National Development (UPND) leader Hakainde Hichilema. Mr. Hichilema is a familiar candidate who has run three times for the presidency. He says he would reverse the controversial mining tax if he won, a key issue in this election. 

 There are nine other candidates running for office. But, Mr. Lungu is seen as Sata's anointed successor.

“This is not a normal election because it’s just about replacing our late President Michael Sata. It’s not about changing governments. We need to finish all our developmental programs,” said acting President Guy Scott at a campaign rally for the ruling party. Mr. Scott was the vice president under Sata.

Lungu had to overcome major party discord late into the campaign before finally gaining the nomination and full backing from Scott and the party.

The numbers seems to be on his side: there are more registered voters in his political strongholds than in those of the opposition. More important, Lungu's biggest advantage lies in the support he received from the late president, which has become a deciding factor in the outcome of the election.

A confusing succession

The top concern for Zambians is that succeeding Sata should have been a smooth handover.

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When he first traveled abroad for medical care last October, the late president appointed Lungu as acting president, overriding the constitutional directive that gave then-Vice President Scott the role. Sata died a few weeks later.

Scott eventually took over as acting president for the 90-day period before the election, but the confusion has caused months of bickering. Scott is constitutionally barred from standing for office because his parents were not born in Zambia.

Lungu eventually received the party nomination, but the disunity gave the opposition an advantage and left the ruling party scrambling to put forward a united front just weeks before the election. They are campaigning to finish their five-year mandate that started in 2011 with the election of Sata.

Zambians are calling for a new “people driven” constitution that provides clear succession directives. All candidates have promised to deliver before the next general elections in September.

Nicknamed “King Cobra,” Sata was extremely popular in Zambia, a mineral-rich country in Africa's copper belt. He won 43 percent of the vote on an anti-Chinese platform in 2011.

Zambians are not unfamiliar with presidents dying in office. Late president Levy Mwanawasa died in 2008 while in office, though the following election led to a peaceful transition.

Violence on Election Day?

Campaigning has not been free of violence.

“There are widespread pockets of political violence that have characterized the campaigns for the forthcoming presidential by-elections,” Irene Mambilima, chairperson of the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ), told The Anadolu Agency.

Supporters of the ruling party attacked a helicopter that was carrying leaders of the opposition UPND and caused a near crash in northern Zambia. In the west, several loyalists from both parties were injured when they clashed at an airport.

Zambia police have recalled all officers on leave to beef up security on Election Day.

ECZ public relations manager Chris Akufuma told The Christian Science Monitor that any violence could undermine the integrity of the body overseeing elections, despite a transparent process that has involved all competing political parties and stakeholders.

“We have opened up the process of conducting this election right from the start and they are involved at every stage,” he says of the parties. “We would like to call on all parties to concentrate on campaigning and leave us to do our work.”

Alex Mutale contributed reporting from Chingola, Zambia.