ANALYSIS: Zambia's 7th president, Hakainde Hichilema, has his work cut out

ANALYSIS

On his sixth attempt, Hakainde Hichilema, the leader of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) party, won the presidential election held in Zambia on Thursday, 12 August 2021. Hichilema’s win ends incumbent Edgar Lungu’s bid for re-election. The elections attracted 16 presidential candidates, although the main contest was between ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party candidate Edgar Lungu and Hichilema’s UPND party that was backed by an alliance of 10 other opposition political parties.

The chairperson of the country’s electoral body, Justice Esau Chulu, declared Hichilema winner of the presidential election three days after the poll. Earlier, the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) attributed the delay in the announcing of the initial presidential election results to the incredibly big voter turnout, which it described as “unprecedented”. The official electoral register captured over seven million Zambian voters, with majority being young voters.

Hichilema’s victory ends the PF’s 10-year rule. The party emerged as a pro-poor option and swept to power in the 2011 elections on the promises of "less taxes, more money in people's pockets and more jobs".

Hichilema is a 59-year-old businessperson, entrepreneur and economist. He rose to the helm of the UPND party in 2006 after the death of its founding leader, Anderson Mazoka. He attempted to win the presidential elections in 2006, 2008, 2011, 2015 and 2016. In the 2016 elections, Hichilema came close to winning but lost to Edgar Lungu in what was seen as a disputed election marred by allegations of rigging by the ruling party.

Since the 2016 elections, Hichilema was critical of the PF's economic policies, which he blamed for growing economic hardships and poverty among many Zambians. His party’s political support was gaining ground in the former ruling party’s strongholds such as Lusaka, Copperbelt and some parts of the Eastern and Northern Provinces. Hichilema’s consistent electoral appeals centered on the increasing social and economic frustrations among Zambia’s urban and rural population.

As the country’s elections drew closer, the desire for change among many Zambians had already been evident in the size of the crowds Hichilema attracted across the country during his campaigns, despite the restrictions placed on his movements by state police on the pretext of curbing the spread of COVID-19 pandemic in the country.

Meanwhile, the ruling party’s Lungu traversed country, placarding his party’s record of improving the lives of Zambians through a huge drive to expand infrastructure in the country during its 10 years in power. The PF highlighted the construction of new roads, power stations, schools, hospitals and the expanded international airports in the capital Lusaka as well as in Ndola - Zambia's second largest city.

However, his critics argued that much of the borrowed money used for the construction by the PF administration was lost to corruption, placing a huge financial burden on the nation’s treasury and further dipping the copper-mining driven economy in staggering external debt. Lately, Zambia also recorded an economic recession, triggering high inflation, a depreciating local currency (the kwacha), elevated unemployment and high cost of living. The drastic social and economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic hit many poor Zambians.

The PF party’s poor handling of the economy and allegations of rampant corruption and scandals among senior government officials was another key factor that narrowed the PF's electoral prospect and support. Several PF leaders were seen to accumulate and display dubious wealth in ways that alienated the former ruling party from poorer citizens. Increasing authoritarianism, shrinking democratic space and rampant lawlessness among ruling party supporters also became a concern for members of the public.

Amnesty International in its latest report on Zambia, Ruling by Fear and Repression, also described the country’s human rights situation under Lungu’s watch as having “deteriorated markedly”. The abuse of state institutions such as the police and the state media by the ruling PF party was also widely seen as a departure from the country’s democratic traditions. These factors, among others, may largely explain the massive erosion of PF support among many Zambians and hence the party’s subsequent defeat in the August elections.

While Hichilema’s election undoubtedly heralds another era in the country's multiparty politics, it is also a referendum against high poverty levels, chronic corruption in government and unemployment among the youthful Zambian population who turned out in massive numbers to cast their vote to eject the ruling PF party out of power.

But Hichilema’s presidency also faces a huge task ahead: uniting a country emerging from a highly contested election, tackling corruption in government, addressing soaring unemployment, and poverty levels and improving public service delivery for many poor Zambians – all of which will be a key test for his new administration. Many Zambians will further look to the UPND’s alternative liberal economic approach to put the highly indebted copper-rich country back on the path to economic recovery and stability.

In the end, Zambia’s elections reaffirms the country’s commitment to the democratic tradition since the return to multiparty politics in 1991. For the past three decades, Zambia has been hailed as a beacon of democratic transition in the region and the African continent.

Mubanga Lumpa is a Zambia-based political analyst. You can follow him on Twitter on @mubangalumpa.