Zambia’s political and security strife eclipse democratic progress | Analyst Picks| RiskMap 2021
Zambia’s political and security strife eclipse democratic progressMarisa Lourenco | Associate Analyst
This year sees political and security risks rising in a nation once hailed as a democratic success story, as Zambia heads to another tight election in August. President Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front (PF), in power since 2015, has presided over a government that has overseen rising political interference in the economy, the erosion of judicial independence, the ongoing stifling of the opposition and the souring of traditionally cordial international ties. Rising economic mismanagement culminated in November 2020 with Zambia defaulting on its debts, becoming the first African nation to do so amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The deteriorating economy will exacerbate these tensions in the run-up to the August general elections. Against this backdrop, the elections will be a critical test of the resilience of Zambia’s democracy.
Questions over the legitimacy of Lungu’s election victories have dogged his time in office. Having come to power following the death of his predecessor Michael Sata in October 2014, Lungu won a presidential by-election in January 2015 and was then re-elected in August 2016. On both occasions, Lungu only narrowly defeated his main rival, Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND). Widespread voting irregularities raised questions over the outcome.
Not only were the 2016 elections the most violent in Zambia’s democratic history, with clashes between rival supporters, as well as between opposition supporters and the police, but they illustrated the increasing polarisation of the electorate along regional and ethnic lines. With votes more evenly distributed at the 2011 elections, in 2015 and 2016 the PF secured the lion’s share of votes in the north-east; the UNPD dominated in the south-west. The other two smaller opposition parties were virtually obliterated.
Political violence has persisted in various forms since. Social grievances have risen as Lungu’s pursuit of investment in big-ticket infrastructure projects has delivered few obvious improvements to the quality of life of most of the population. This is alongside an economy in decline. The PF will double down on its populist rhetoric and blame external factors for its fiscal woes, while the opposition will point to these challenges as proof of an incapable government.
Another PF win under Lungu and claims of irregularities would signal a continued slide into authoritarianism and further complicate an already difficult business environment. The race will be tight, with localised violence likely, but given the UPND’s gains at the 2016 election and rising popular dissatisfaction with Lungu’s administration, we believe Hichilema will clinch victory. A UPND victory under the pro-business Hichilema would likely go some way to reversing the democratic backsliding of recent years and reassure investors.