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Quiet determination of voters wins out against growing authoritarianism, economic meltdown and cronyism
In a short speech on state television on 16 August, President Edgar Lungu congratulated his rival Hakainde Hichilema on his landslide win in last week's presidential elections and promised to 'comply with all the constitutional provisions for a peaceful transition.'
This concession statement came several hours after electoral commission chairman Esau Chulu announced that Hichilema's victory with 2.8 million votes against 1.8mn for Lungu. It finally ended reports that the government would challenge the results in court, perhaps securing an injunction to stop the count, citing violence against its supporters in some of Hichilema's strongholds (AC Dispatches 13/08/21, Opposition surges ahead of critical vote).
Such was the margin of victory for Hichilema after a day of vote counting at the electoral commission, any officials trying to launch an injunction to stop the count would have invoked ridicule, and more importantly triggered mass protests.
Hichilema's landslide pointed to the error of some confident projections of a close result; many under-estimated the extent to which Lungu had lost popular legitimacy due to corruption and economic decline (AC Vol 62 No 17, Opposition surges ahead of critical vote).
After six years of Lungu's presidency, over half of Zambians are living under the poverty line, according to the World Bank; external public foreign debt has swelled over six times to nearly $13 billion in the past decade (AC Vol 62 No 12, Betting the farm on winning).
Yet rights activists feared that the government may have tried to use the Constitutional Court, packed with Lungu's supporters, to annul the elections.
Such a scheme would have had little support from outsiders. The African Union has no appetite for more chaos in southern Africa; and the European Union in a strong statement on 14 August lambasted the government for 'misuse of state resources' and 'one-sided media reporting'. Earlier, EU diplomats had joined with United States officials criticising the government for putting the army on the streets ahead of the elections.
We hear lengthy meetings with former president Rupiah Banda and Sierra Leone's former President Ernest Bai Koroma, chairman of the AU observer mission, on 15 August, persuaded Lungu that challenging the result would be pointless and costly.
Banda, who was defeated in Zambia's presidential elections in 2012, could draw on that experience to advise Lungu. Koroma's All People's Congress lost executive power at the end of his second presidential term.
The outgoing government's legacy will weigh heavily on Hichilema's team but along with the initial goodwill that will greet his presidency there are a few bright economic spots such as copper prices increasing by a third in the last month and a boost to Zambia's foreign reserves from its US$1.3billion share of the International Monetary Fund's new issue of US$650 bn in its Special Drawing Rights currency.
Lusaka-based activist Laura Miti argues Hichilema will be in a strong political position initially: 'He has no baggage, he won this fair and square. Truthfully, he owes no one. Zambians voted for him!'
That gives him a great responsibility, Mti adds: 'His problems (and they are humungous) are a broken economy, social infrastructure and national psyche.'
Veteran Zambian journalist, and co-founder of the Leriba political risk consultancy in South Africa, Buchizya Mzeteka, warns that '…reining in corruption and meeting the high expectations of any angry population' would not be easy for Hichilema but concludes the election has strengthened the country's standing: 'Victory will go a long way in cementing the reputation of Zambians as the one African population resolved to take on state impunity and authoritarianism.'
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