Zambia election campaign focuses on township woes

The UPND, the main rival to the ruling Patriotic Front (PF), is eager to tap into mounting disillusionment in the city's poorest neighbourhoods, where dissent has grown since the last 2016 poll.

Supporters of the ruling Patriotic Front of the incumbent President Edgar Lungu wave a flag showing a portrait of Lungu during a campaign parade in Lusaka, on 10 August 2021. Zambians will decide on 12 August 2021, whether to re-elect President Edgar Lungu after the country's worst economic performance in decades and a crackdown on dissent that has raised fears of unrest in the southern African country. Picture: Patrick Meinhardt/AFP

MATERO - Zambian tailor Lovemore Zulu was unfazed by the deafening music as he picked out the stitching of a broken zipper, bobbing his head to the tunes blasting from an opposition election campaign parade.

The 38-year-old lives in a small cement brick house with no running water in front of the main United Party for National Development (UPND) opposition party office in Matero township, a densely populated western suburb of the capital Lusaka.

The UPND, the main rival to the ruling Patriotic Front (PF), is eager to tap into mounting disillusionment in the city's poorest neighbourhoods, where dissent has grown since the last 2016 poll.

Young party activists in red berets and T-shirts piled into the back of a decorated pickup truck as a motorcade set off into Matero, one of their final shows to woo votes ahead of Thursday's general election.

They were accompanied by balaclava-clad "protectors" armed with machetes.

Despite a ban on mass rallies, it took less than an hour for hundreds of people to join the parade, jogging alongside the vehicles as they shouted "faka (pressure) for change", one of the party's slogans.

'PEOPLE HAVE LESS MONEY'

Like most Zambians, Matero residents have suffered the impacts of sharp economic decline under President Edgar Lungu and struggle to make ends meet.

"The price of material has increased so much," said Zulu, sitting under his makeshift tarpaulin-lined workstation in blue overalls and a purple beanie.

"In more than five years, there has been no improvement," he told AFP, pointing to several patched-up parts on the second-hand manual sewing machine he is saving to replace.

But with daily revenue almost halved since he started, the same year Lungu took power, Zulu has lost hope in the ruling PF party.

"People have less money," he explained. "Everyone is complaining."

'NOT' SAFE

The UPND's presidential candidate Hakainde Hichilema, a sixth-time runner, has already lost twice to Lungu since he was first elected in 2015. Their next stand-off is expected to be particularly tight.

Campaigning has been limited by coronavirus restrictions and marred by violent clashes between PF and UPND supporters, prompting Lungu to deploy the army.

Opposition voters are generally keeping a low profile in Lusaka, a PF stronghold where green ruling party manifestos dominate the scene.

In Matero, a man walks up to an AFP photographer and pulls off his white sweater to reveal blood-crusted scabs on his right shoulder.

He introduces himself as Jonathan Mulala, 26. He says PF "cadres" attacked him with a bottle the previous evening when he went to fetch his sister from a bar where she was having drinks with friends wearing a UPND t-shirt.

The party's parliamentary candidate for Matero, Tom Michelo, said he had reported at least 40 similar incidents to the police since campaigning started in May.

"This is why we are holding bigger rallies," he noted, because a three-people limit on the only authorised door-to-door campaigning is "not safe" and leaves people vulnerable to attacks.

'ECONOMY IS BITING'

Starry-eyed children fought over flyers as women in colourful skirts came out of brick and corrugated iron homes, imitating the UPND's "way forward" gesture: an extended hand with the thumb pointing up.

Michelo stopped at a food market, where he was almost overtaken by the crowd, pushing and shoving for regalia.

A vegetable vendor reached out to protect his carefully balanced display of potatoes as three flustered-looking women left the scene, disappointed at not getting a T-shirt.

"Our greatest campaign... has been lack of employment," Michelo admitted before setting off with a pile of freebies. "The economy is biting."

PF supporters later clashed with the convoy, injuring around two dozen partakers before soldiers intervened, UPND spokesman Bryan Chafwila told AFP late Tuesday.

"It's going to get bloody as we get closer to voting day," he warned.

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