BSR: Reflections on the Zambian Elections


In the end, it was a landslide victory for the new Zambian leader, President Hakainde Hichilema. He won by over one million votes, beating the incumbent and bitter rival, President Edgar Lungu. Buoyed by the arrogance of incumbency, a haughty Lungu had announced just hours before the polls closed that he would be handing over power to himself. For him, the voting process was a mere ritual that would simply confirm a pre-determined outcome. 

But the people of Zambia had other ideas. The young and old turned out in large numbers across the country to vote Lungu and his Patriotic Front government out of office. The impact was felt well beyond Zambian borders, not least across the Zambezi where citizens of Zimbabwe greeted the news as if it were their election. Opposition supporters felt a sense of vicarious joy at the success of Hichilema while ruling party followers were dismayed. Government spokespersons had mocked Hichilema as a “traitor”. His collegiality with fellow opposition leaders in the region including President Mnangagwa’s rival Nelson Chamisa did not please ZANU PF.  

Many observers thought it was going to be yet another African election where citizens go through the motions, but the process would be negated by rigging. Even those who thought Hichilema had a better chance at his sixth attempt for the presidency were cautious. He had a good chance, but the playing field was skewed in favour of the incumbent. Lungu’s candidature had already attracted controversy with critics arguing that he was ineligible because of term limit provisions. Although he overcame the legal hurdle, ultimately, he was unable to persuade the court of public opinion. Zambian historian Dr. Sishuwa described the election as partly a referendum on Lungu and his government’s performance over the past 6 years. If this is a correct characterization, then the outcome was a resounding rejection.   

That circumstance is a strong reminder of what makes multi-party democracy an attractive political model. For all its weaknesses, multi-party democracy is a system that provides an opportunity for citizens to pass judgment on their leadership at regular intervals. Through an election, citizens have a chance to either reward a leadership that is performing well or to punishes it, if it is not meeting expectations. Zambians used the election to punish Lungu and his PF government and to give a chance to Hichilema and the UPND party. If this election was a referendum on Lungu and the PF, the next cycle will certainly be a referendum on Hichilema and his UPND government. With Zambia in economic dire-straits and citizens investing high expectations, Hakainde and UPND’s work is cut out for them. 

But the fate of Lungu and PF is also a reminder of the fact that democracy by itself does not guarantee success and therefore any political change ought to be treated with cautious optimism. It’s only a decade ago when Zambians celebrated the PF victory under President Sata. Lungu’s tenure following Sata’s death has left Zambia in murky waters. As experts on Zambia have pointed out, the success of Hakainde is also partly a reflection of the huge reservoir of unhappiness at Lungu and PF’s failure to perform when they had the chance. Unless Hichilema and his party do better than their predecessors, Zambians will be at the same spot again in 5 years, rejecting them and looking for another saviour. The hope is that Hichilema and his UPND party have taken lessons from this, and Zambia will turn a corner under their leadership. Their progress or lack of it will be watched closely beyond Zambian borders.  

Zimbabwe and Zambia have a shared history of friendship and solidarity going back to the days of the liberation struggle when Zambia provided rear bases to Zimbabwe’s guerrilla fighters. Between 1953 and 1963, they were part of the same federal state alongside Nyasaland. Both Zambia and Malawi were granted independence from British colonial rule in 1964. It would take their former partner, Zimbabwe another 16 years to achieve independence. After enduring long periods of one-party rule, both Zambia and Malawi seem to have turned a corner after the re-introduction of multi-party democracy in the 1990s. They have adopted a good habit of tolerating change in ruling parties; that it is normal for citizens to try out other options.

It is an essential feature in the life of democracy for a ruling party to accept that it can lose an election and allow for a transition of power to the opposition. It is also important for the opposition to accept defeat, but that rejection is easier to handle than when a ruling party refuses to concede and give up power. Zambia and Malawi have both progressed to a stage where no single party is regarded as having a monopoly on political power, something that Zimbabwe is still struggling to achieve. That moment could have happened in 2008, when President Mugabe lost to Morgan Tsvangirai in the 29 March election. Tsvangirai won the electoral victory but there was no peaceful transfer of power. If that had happened, Zimbabwe could also have gotten used to the fact that it is perfectly normal for parties to rotate in power.       

Zambia and Malawi had good precedents that were set in the first multi-party democratic elections in the 1990s when both Kenneth Kaunda and Kamuzu Banda lost and gave way to their younger challengers. That set the tone for the future. Since then, both countries have managed to go through peaceful transitions of power from the ruling party to the winning opposition. An ordinary Zimbabwean has never seen a peaceful transfer of power since independence while his Zambian and Malawian counterpart is now used to it. Their democracies are maturing while Zimbabwe’s has suffered stunted growth.

Zimbabwe can get there too but only if the power-broking institutions play their role as required by the Constitution. The most key among these institutions in Zimbabwe’s context is the military. The relationship between the military and the party-government is one crucial element that distinguishes Zimbabwe from its neighbours. To win independence, Zimbabwe had to fight a bitter armed struggle that put together political and military units with a revolving door between the two, individuals moving seamlessly from one to the other. This continued in the post-independence era with the conflation between the ruling party and the state, with the military in the mix. It is this factor that led to the miscarriage in the transfer of power in 2008 and remains an obstacle to this day.

ZANU PF betrays its weaknesses and vulnerabilities by constantly trying to leverage the military, making regular references to the military as if it were a party organ. This is demeaning to the military, which is a national institution with a constitutional mandate. The militaries in Malawi and Zambia refuse to be used for party political agendas. They perform their constitutional mandate, which is why they were quick to move in support of the winner of the election regardless of their political roots. It is also a sign of ZANU PF’s insecurities that its leaders feel the need to constantly remind people that it has the military on its side or that the military will never allow the transfer of power to another party. There might be a few individuals in the military who have no regard for democracy, but there will come a time when the institution plays its role productively and impartially.

The Zambian election also brings to the fore the question that is also asked of the opposition parties in regimes where the electoral playing field is not free and fair. It is whether the opposition parties should contest or boycott the elections. Some argue that there is no point in contesting rigged elections. They say it does not make sense for opposition parties to continue to do the same things knowing that the outcome will be rigged. Indeed, many of them had predicted that Hichilema would lose the election, not because he was unpopular but because Lungu would have rigged it. The other school of thought is that opposition parties must always take the opportunity that an election presents and give people a choice. This view is stridently against boycotting elections even when the conditions are not free and fair. Those who follow this school of thought will be emboldened by the Zambian election. The opposition knew that the ruling party had created an unlevel playing field, but it persisted. Despite the unfairness, the opposition won a landslide victory.

The Zambian opposition was not oblivious of the challenges they were facing. Hichilema cried foul in 2016 when he narrowly lost to Lungu. This time he and the UNPD knew they had to mobilize people, especially the young, to register to vote in large numbers. The opposition was able to tap into the huge reservoir of discontentment among the millions of young Zambians who are unemployed and living in poverty. Most of them have left school and entered the labour market in the 10 years that the PF party has been in power. But opportunities are extremely limited. The country’s debt has ballooned and it is now defaulting even though just 15 years ago Zambia was one of the beneficiaries of the Highly Indebted Poor Country scheme under which debts were written off. There has been gross corruption and deterioration in human rights protection. All of this provided a ready market for Hichilema and the UNPD. But it also means the new government is carrying high hopes and expectations of millions of young people. It will be judged on its ability to deliver these promises.

Lungu’s insecurities became apparent when he started impugning the electoral process before the results had been announced. It is unusual for an incumbent to cry foul over the handling of the electoral process. Professor Nic Cheeseman raised an alert that Lungu was “doing a Trump” when he started complaining that the election was not free and fair in certain provinces. Cheeseman was referring to former US President Donald Trump’s antics during the 2020 presidential election when he started rejecting and undermining the electoral process as the results were being counted. Usually, it is the opposition that has no control over the electoral process that raises alarm concerning rigging, not the incumbent.

Lungu’s antics suggested that he had lost control of the process. Trump had tried desperately to apply pressure on election officials to affect the results. Both men failed because institutions stood firm. Lungu’s case is useful because it also challenges the commonly held belief that African incumbents always have total control of institutions. Sometimes they don’t but they benefit from the perceptions that they do. The problem is that sometimes opposition parties and their supporters give more credit and power to ruling parties than they deserve. Ruling parties happily take this credit because it gives them an aura of invincibility. The attacks of institutions might even end up drawing them closer to the ruling party when they also need to be defended from ruling party pressures.

Lungu and PF’s desperation as the election progressed just demonstrated that they did not have the power and control that had been attributed to them. Lungu was just as vulnerable as the other candidates. He feared losing and there was no one to rescue him. In the end, authoritarian rulers realize that power is an illusion, and they are lonely and terrified, which is in total contrast to their arrogant attitude while in power. If anything, those constant references to having so much power and that they cannot be removed are signs of inner weakness and vulnerability. Like prey trying to repel a predator’s attack, their best bet is to make a performance that makes attack an unattractive option. So ruling parties thrive on portraying imagined power and they benefit from people regularly drumming it up in public spaces. The more influential figures say the ruling party cannot be defeated, the more it assumes a reality of its own in the minds of ordinary people.

The peaceful transfer of power in Zambia is undoubtedly a bright moment for the region. It comes just a year after Malawi successfully navigated another peaceful transfer of power. The two countries have led the way for multi-party democracy in the region not just because they have had multi-party elections but more significantly because they are the only ones that have changed ruling parties more than once. South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Namibia, and Botswana have all changed presidents more than once, but they have all been from the same political party. Zimbabwe’s change was through a coup in 2017 and has also been ruled by a single political party.

The idea of political competition and the sight of peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another is something to behold. It is a good habit that must be encouraged throughout the region. It was possible because institutions that play the role of political referees did their job. Regional peers should learn from how Zambian institutions led the way and stood firm to defend democracy and the Constitution. When called to defend freedoms after the outgoing government had shut down social media, the courts came to the rescue. When called to protect Hichilema as it became apparent that he was winning the election, the security establishment performed its role, thereby facilitating a smooth transition.

The presence of former President Rupiah Banda who lost to his challenger Michael Sata in 2011 is also significant in Zambia’s political space and culture. Here was a man who had been President for a short time and would have wanted to have a proper term, but he conceded and gave way to Sata when he lost the election. He and other former African presidents would have exerted their persuasive strengths to get Lungu to see sense and concede. The margin of defeat was too big. No court was ever going to overturn an election outcome in which the loser was trailing by more than one million votes. The role of smaller opposition parties that conceded and acknowledged Hichilema as the winner should also not be underestimated. By endorsing Hichilema as the winner, they were giving losers’ consent and pulling the rug from under Lungu’s feet.  

It might sound strange that an incumbent should be praised for conceding defeat and allowing peaceful transfer of power. But this is because defeat for an incumbent is a rare event in our election processes on the continent. After all, the elections are usually rigged successfully, or the incumbent simply resorts to all manner of strategies to avoid leaving office. In short, a peaceful transfer of power in the manner that Zambia showed is an excellent example that ought to be commended and emulated. That is why Lungu has been praised for doing what should be normal: that as an incumbent he conceded defeat and gave way to the opposition party. 

The task that lies ahead for Hichilema and his new government cannot be overstated. He had tried several times before this victory. It is yet another testament to the importance of determination and resilience. In the continent, it is not unusual for an opposition leader to try several times before getting there in the end. If Hichilema had given up after two or three attempts, he would not be where he is. Opposition parties grapple with this issue: what to do with a leader when he has tried and failed to break the ruling party in the first few attempts. Does he or she stay on and fight another day, or do they give way to new blood? If they stay on, they are accused of hogging the position. If they leave, they will be leaving the job half-done. It’s a big dilemma faced by opposition leaders. Hichilema stayed on and has steadily built his support base and this time the incumbent was at his weakest.

Yet the hopes and dreams spurred by Hichilema’s success go beyond Zambia. The neighbours are also watching with deep interest. Those in the opposition are inspired that one of them has made it against all odds but some ruling parties are horrified by the sight of an opposition party winning and defeating an incumbent. This is not how the script should read for the club of ruling parties. Zimbabwe’s ruling party expected Lungu to sail through and have another term. 

But while the Zimbabwean opposition finds inspiration in the Zambian opposition’s success, the law of unintended consequences means the events across the Zambezi have also placed ZANU PF on high alert. If ZANU PF was complacent, it has been reminded that defeat is a real possibility. Just as the MDC Alliance will be drawing lessons from the Zambian election, ZANU PF will also be studying the same election and learning how to avoid Lungu’s pitfalls. It is often said that ZANU PF’s defeat at the constitutional referendum in 2000 woke the ruling party from its slumber, helping it to prepare for the parliamentary elections that came just 4 months later. Perhaps without the referendum defeat, ZANU PF might have sleep-walked into the June 2000 elections, blissfully unaware of the public sentiment. There is no doubt that events in Zambia are worrying them, and they will be working on strategies to prevent the Hichilema Effect in 2023. 

There is also reason to be cautious: UPND is now the ruling party of Zambia and unless it embarks on a serious project of transformation of governance, it will adopt the mentality of previous ruling parties. This has happened before in Zambia and other countries that have had a change of government. The Lazarus Chakwera administration in Malawi which was celebrated after its election success last year is already attracting some questions and murmurs. The reason why former opposition parties that have become ruling parties have failed is that they did not transform the institutional culture they found when they got into office. Instead of changing the institutional culture, the institutional culture changed them. They conformed to what they found in place and because of institutional corruption, they also got corrupted.

One of UPND’s most eloquent voices Joseph Kalimbwe tweeted his delight at seeing a Zambian state daily newspaper covering their party, something that would have been unheard of before their election success. My response was that the Zambian Daily Mail was doing what it is accustomed to doing. It is institutionally biased towards the party in power. Therefore, nothing has changed there. What has changed is that the UPND is now in power, and the newspaper is simply following where power lies. Its institutional bias towards the party in power remains.

The test, I explained, is whether the Zambian Daily Mail will treat the UPND’s opponents the same way it treated the UPND when it was still in opposition and secondly, if it does so, whether the UPND government will allow it. The challenge for the UPND is to break the cycle of repression by liberating state media like the Zambian Daily Mail from institutional bias. If the new government can do that, it will be on course and it will give more confidence to opposition parties elsewhere on the continent.  

There have been far too many false starts in the continent’s democratic journey, when a new party gets into power with great promise, only to behave exactly, if not worse than the ruling party it replaced. Many are looking to the UPND and hoping that it will set a better example than former opposition parties that have made their way to the top. Their success will be a great inspiration to other people struggling for political change and transformation in their countries.