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Vol 62 No 17

Published 26th August 2021


Opposition surges ahead of critical vote

Voter suppression and fraud allegations are vital issues in the final stretch of the campaign

Copyright © Africa Confidential 2021

The ruling Patriotic Front is making a final push for votes ahead of the 12 August general election although many of the party's loyalists fear a surge in support for the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) – especially in the mainly urban areas of Lusaka and the Copperbelt.

Some PF cadres have expressed doubts in private that their party could win a free and fair election; some concede that even with the ruling party's advantages of incumbency along with the possibility of manipulation of the vote count and results transmission, the opposition could win.

We hear that some senior PF members have been critical of the party's campaign and the party has been haemorrhaging support. Former finance minister Alexander Chikwanda has been particularly concerned, our sources say. 

UPND presidential candidate Hakainde Hichilema has been pulling large crowds, especially in the swing provinces of Lusaka and Copperbelt, according to witnesses. However, he is being prevented from flying in his campaign aircraft to many destinations on the campaign trail because aviation authorities frequently refuse to clear the flight plans he files, his supporters say. Independent polls such as Afrobarometer and analysts put Hichilema significantly ahead of the PF's President Edgar Lungu.

There is a consensus among observers that UPND is in the lead in Southern, Western, Central and North Western Provinces while the PF is set to take Eastern, Northern, Luapula and Muchinga provinces.

Hichilema is also expected to make inroads into PF strongholds, including in Eastern province. Political analysts say it is likelier that Hichilema will make inroads into PF areas than the other way around. Former President Rupiah Banda, who is from Eastern province and retains significant influence there, has remained neutral in this election, which is interpreted as a snub to Lungu because he supported him in the last two elections.

From independent polling, interviews with voters and the turnout at rival party rallies, the UPND seems to have greatly boosted its support since the disputed 2016 elections when Hichilema lost to Lungu by less than 100,000 votes. 

But it will take more than popular support to win. PF activists are determined to hang on to power. Some fear prosecution for corruption should Hichilema win, say some top PF sources.

The critical factors on Thursday 12 August are the turnout and possible fraud: not just the physical presence of voters at the polling booths but whether the late change of rules, such as the Electoral Commission of Zambia's (ECZ) selective introduction of biometric voter verification in key urban constituencies, will deter voters.

These new rules could slow down voting in urban areas where the opposition has been building support and create confusion in cases where electoral officials haven't had enough training. 

The outcome will hinge on how successfully the PF can use these tactics, along with constraints on voter registration imposed on younger and urban voters, along with violence and intimidation.

Some in the PF are privately confident that the polls are so well rigged that their victory is inevitable. UPND activists worry that tactics such as ballot stuffing, and cuts in power and internet services, could facilitate a large enough PF fraud, and block proper monitoring (such as Parallel Vote Tabulation), to hand the PF a win. A nationwide power cut on 8 August rang alarm bells.

The PF will also be helped by its main campaign boasts – new airports, scrapping fuel taxes, cash payments to the poor, and farm subsidies. Many commentators and economists say that such policies have, along with corrupt procurement, helped bankrupt the treasury and that social projects have only survived budget cuts because donors funded them.

For UPND to get enough of a lead to overcome the fraud remains tough, they say.

However, some of Lungu's business allies have been making last-minute overtures to Hichilema as a UPND win begins to looks less far-fetched. The decision in May by an alliance of four leaders of splinter parties to join with UPND, including Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) heavyweight Felix Mutati, who served as Lungu's Finance Minister, was an important endorsement for Hichilema (AC Vol 59 No 7, Into the valley of debt).

UPND has also benefitted from the inside knowledge of lawyer Kelvin Fube Bwalya, who was the first PF President Michael Sata's campaign manager and joined the UPND along with Mutati. Bwalya said they joined Hichilema because under the PF, the rule of law had broken down and the President was now a 'legal dictator'. 

One possible outcome that analysts say is being given insufficient consideration is a second round of the presidential election, which will occur if no candidate polls more than 50% of the votes. Although Lungu polled 100,000 more votes than Hichilema in 2016, he only averted a second-round re-run by 13,000 votes.

A second round is a particularly unappealing prospect for the PF because it will have sunk most of its spending into getting out on the vote on 12 August and may have little left in the kitty. If Hichilema is still in the contest in a second round that could make his potential victory seem more realistic to voters who may then back him.

On the other hand, others believe that a run-off could favour the PF, with undecided voters opting for the status quo and independents directing their voters to support Lungu.

The PF's efforts to spend much of President Lungu's last term in campaign mode, spending massively on subsidies and borrowing on an epic scale for prestige public works to help boost its vote, has pushed the economy to the edge of the precipice and mired the government in sleaze, the opposition argues. This is at the core of PF's loss of support in two key areas: the Copperbelt and Lusaka.

Urban swings
Much employment and business in large swathes of the Copperbelt depend on Konkola Copper Mines, one of the biggest copper concerns in the country. The decline of KCM is felt keenly by the local electorate, say analysts. Constituencies in this area, including Chingola and Chillilabombwe, have shown strong support for UPND at rallies.

UPND sources say voters here are experiencing heavy economic hardship. The government's decision to buy Glencore's Mopani mine, taking on another $1.5bn of debt to do so, has failed to enthuse voters, they add (See Box, Trouble brews in Lungu's heartlands). The UPND believes it will win in Mufulira, where one of the Mopani mine sites is located, and where President Lungu grew up. Industry sources are pessimistic about the future if the PF wins. 'There are no mines about to open, but plenty closing,' one said.

While the UPND is expected to do better than ever before in the Copperbelt the opposition does not expect to make such strong inroads in Kitwe. Some ascribe this to the ruling party's deal with the 'Jerabos', a crime syndicate which controls the artisanal exploitation of the area's mine tailings (AC Vol 61 No 11, Gangs of the Copperbelt). Under the arrangement, the PF secretly smiles at the illegal mining in return for the Jerabos turning out the PF vote at election time. Some analysts believe the influence of this deal is not as great as is often claimed. 

The PF will also do well, the pundits say, in Kabushi, in Ndola, where outgoing Provincial Minister Bowman Lusambo spends lavishly on his constituents. The opposition accuses him of doing this with illegally acquired funds, which he denies. Another MP likely to hold his seat is Foreign Minister Joseph Malanji, a multi-millionaire defending his seat in Kwacha, Kitwe. He attracted headlines this year after buying a $1.4m helicopter.

The UPND is also expected to make a lot of ground in Lusaka, where Lungu's daughter Tasila is standing in his former constituency of Chawama. Hichilema's anti-corruption narrative resonates with voters in the capital, UPND sources say, and they expect to translate disaffection with PF corruption and economic mismanagement into votes for the UPND.


Trouble brews in Lungu's heartlands

President Edgar Lungu hoped the resource-nationalist gesture of placing Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) in liquidation because of the supposed mismanagement by Vedanta Resources, the mine's owner, would win votes for the ruling Patriotic Front, political analysts said. Vedanta has been deeply unpopular for many years and clashed with the PF's Michael Sata before and after he became president in 2011 (AC Vol 54 No 23, Vedanta cools row). Mired in controversy over pollution and other scandals, its managers have offended local opinion and had to make amends (AC Vol 55 No 12, Fury over Vedanta). 

But President Lungu has overplayed his hand, political sources say. Since the liquidator took charge of KCM, its fortunes have plunged further and the public is blaming the government, they say (AAC Vol 7 No 1, KCM on the back foot).

Lungu expected to be able to make quick cash from selling off the mine's smelter, believing he would be inundated with offers from dozens of foreign investors, we hear. But the dispute between Vedanta and the state-owned Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines-Investment Holdings (ZCCM-IH), which owns 20% of KCM, is in the midst of a long arbitration case, and no investor will touch KCM or its assets while that is going on. 

One of its KCM's largest creditors is the Copperbelt Energy Corporation (CEC), a private company which bought the power division of the state-owned ZCCM when it was broken up and privatised in the early 1990s. KCM owes it nearly $150 million and CEC has demanded arbitration to obtain payment of the arrears. The government has been desperately trying to keep power supplies going to the mines and prevent CEC from cutting them off for non-payment. Other legal disputes centre on the government's attempt to keep KCM operating while minimising its outgoings.

KCM has incurred at least $400m in debt since the start of the liquidation, according to senior sources at ZCCM-IH. The opposition hopes that the perception that the copper mines are being mishandled by government policy, and that it is the PF that threatens their future employment rather than 'Big Mining', will be strong enough to translate into votes for the UPND.

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