Africa Watch

Zambia’s election a test for democracy

Kaunda legacy in danger

Zambia’s reputation of being one of Africa's most stable democracies has been under threat in recent years. The recent election could be crucial for Zambia’s reputation.

In 1991 Zambia, and in particular President Kenneth Kaunda, gave southern Africa a lesson in democracy.

At a time when it was certainly still highly irregular to do so, President Kaunda, in power since independence in 1964, did what many had thought inconceivable.

Voluntarily, and without any pressure, President Kaunda, a once hard-line one-party advocate who banned all political parties in 1972, leaving only his United National Independence Party (UNIP), handed over power to Frederick Chiluba after the former trade union leader and head of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) defeated him in the first multiparty elections since the 1960s.

A misdirected economic policy with a strong socialist flavour and one-party rule brought ruin to Zambia, paving the way for regime change which, when it came, augured well for the future. 

Setting an example

By accepting defeat, President Kaunda not only set an example to other leaders in Africa, but Zambia also proved that free and fair elections and seamless change of government was possible in Africa.  

Zambia became the trailblazer for democracy in Africa, setting an example for the rest to emulate.


The Chiluba government started off in exemplary fashion, but large-scale corruption, abuses of power, scandals and increased repression of the opposition and of political rights characterised his second term.

The Chiluba presidency not only ended in infamy when he failed to change the constitution to run for a third term in office but also signalled the beginning of the gradual backsliding of democracy in Zambia.

The governments that followed under presidents Mwanawasa, Banda and Sata all played their part in weakening Zambia’s democratic base.

Elections, in particular, became periods of intense instability and tension, with tactics of intimidation and violence embraced by all the main parties.

This was a surprise development in a country famed for its peacefulness, despite huge tribal and language diversity.

In the run-up to the 11 August 2016 election some commentators have alarmingly predicted that in Zambia democracy was “hovering on the precipice” or, perhaps more correctly, “Zambia’s democratic credentials are increasingly in doubt”.


It came as no surprise when Zambia's main opposition leader warned that the election of 11 August 2016 would not be free and fair.

Hakainde Hichilema, campaigning for president for a fifth time under the banner of the United Party for National Development (UPND), cited violence by supporters of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) and intimidation by the security forces as proof.

It has also been suggested that the decision of the electoral commission to suspend campaigning for 10 days in two areas, including the capital Lusaka, due to escalating political violence, was a plan concocted to thwart the opposition’s campaigning.

Allegations of electoral fraud over both the voters’ roll and the printing of ballots were also voiced in tandem with accusations that the ruling PF party appropriated state funds for political purposes, while media outlets critical of the Lungu government were harassed and some even shut down.

Most controversial was shutting down the only genuine opposition newspaper, The Post, in June 2016, on flimsy tax-related charges. 

Fierce contest

The battle between presidential hopeful Hichilema and President Edgar Lungu was expected to be fierce.

Last year’s neck-and-neck race following the death of President Michael Sata, in October 2014, was narrowly won by Lungu by less than 28 000 votes.

With such a small margin it came as no surprise that Hichilema claimed that fraud denied him victory.

If the winner does not achieve 50% plus one vote, as required by the constitution, the election will go to a second round, within 37 days. The violence and meddling can, in the circumstances, be expected only to increase.

Political fatigue

Zambia, once the trailblazer for democracy in Africa, is showing the same tendency experienced in the rest of the world – political fatigue.

Globally there is noticeably less enthusiasm for political participation than before. Also in Zambia, people are tired of the failure of politicians to deliver on their promises.

The election of 11 August 2016 could be a watershed for Zambia. As The Conversation speculates: “The 2016 elections therefore represent a critical point in Zambia’s political history. They could herald a complete rupture of the existing party system and a worrying slide towards a competitive authoritarian regime. But they could also simply reflect a minor detour on the country’s road towards democratic consolidation.”

The election, although tense, was to the surprise but delight of most, concluded with minimal violence and intimidation.

The people of Zambia, true to tradition, showed again that they are a peace-loving nation.

However, by Sunday 14 August 2015, tension and pressure were reaching dangerous levels due to the painstakingly slow counting and releasing of results by the Election Commission of Zambia.

Way past its agreement of releasing the final result of the presidential election 48 hours after voting has closed, accusations and claims of election fraud, including claims by main opposition UPND, began to multiply.  `

By the time of writing, with the results of 141 of the 156 voting stations counted and verified, President Lungu was slightly ahead of Hichilema, his main rival from the UPND.

                                                                     LATE FLASH

Lungu re-elected in disputed vote

 The final results were announced Monday evening with, incumbent, President Edgar Lungu narrowly winning re-election against his main rival, Hakainde Hichilema.

But he drama is not over yet, as Hichilema's United Party for National Development (UPND) accused electoral officials of colluding in favour of Lungu, indicating it t would appeal the result at the Constitutional Court.

by Garth Cilliers

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