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High turnout augurs well for opposition but ruling party wavers on its acceptance of the results

Tensions rise amid reports that the Lungu government may seek an injunction to suspend the electoral process

Election observers said that voting was overwhelmingly peaceful in the national elections on 12 August in what independent analysts say was the country's highest voter turnout since multi-party elections in 1991 (AC Vol 62 No 17, Opposition surges ahead of critical vote). All registered voters in the queue at the end of voting at 18.00 local time were allowed to vote; some in the slower moving queues waited until midnight.

The heavy turnout of younger voters in Lusaka and the Copperbelt, hard hit by inflation and joblessness, was seen as good news for the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) (AC Vol 62 No 7, PF bets it all on the polls). Informal collation of polling station returns suggested that Freedom Sikwaze, a close ally of President Edgar Lungu, has lost his seat in Mpulungu, in Northern Province.

Another straw in the wind is anecdotal reporting that prisons, police and army barracks have voted heavily for the opposition. Activists sounded alarms, along with diplomats, after the government ordered a partial internet shut down, suspending the WhatsApp and Facebook platforms on voting day. This made it much harder for citizens to report fraud or other malpractice.

Early on 13 August, the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) started counting and collating votes from over 10,000 polling stations. It is set to announce turnout figures on 13 August and final results within three days.

But a statement from President Lungu late on 12 August raised concerns about that timetable: 'How can you talk about free and fair elections when our opponents have taken this election as war?'. He added that he had ordered the Army Commander to send troops to North-Western, and parts of Western and Southern provinces.

The United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee had earlier lambasted Lungu's government for sending the army onto the streets before the election, accusing it of 'repressing the opposition' and 'undermining the electoral process'. David Young, the US Chargé d'Affaires in Lusaka, said Washington would 'hold to account' anyone interfering in the electoral process; the measures could include visa bans and financial sanctions.

At a press conference in Lusaka, as polling booths were closing, the ruling Patriotic Front claimed, without showing evidence, that some of its agents had been excluded from polling stations in Western and Southern province, areas supporting the opposition UPND.

These statements could lay the basis for a rejection of the election results, according to several independent analysts, moves reminiscent of Donald Trump's 'stop the steal' campaign after he lost the US presidential elections in November. They said there were credible reports the government would launch an injunction to stop the electoral commission releasing more results. 

This would give a critical role to the parallel vote tabulation run by independent civic organisations. Under the rules, they can't release their figures until after the ECZ announces the official results, but they can send them to international observer missions and foreign diplomats.

We hear that local activists are working closely with diplomats and other international officials to pre-empt turmoil around disputes. In 1991, President Jimmy Carter helped to talk down incumbent Kenneth Kaunda after he lost multiparty elections to trades unionist Frederick Chiluba.

If needed, some are expecting other African leaders to play a similar role. Given the poisonous relations between Lungu's government and most Western diplomats, few of them are likely to wield much influence at State House.

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