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Zambian 2016 election: a British perspective

Edgar Chagwa Lungu Photo Credit: www.mwebantu.com


 Edgar Chagwa Lungu Photo Credit: www.mwebantu.com

                                              Edgar Chagwa Lungu Photo Credit: www.mwebantu.com


The UK is currently experiencing one of the biggest political shocks of a generation. Indeed, unless you were living under a rock for the past month, it is impossible for you not to know what is happening. Meanwhile, it is easy to forget that the world is going about its business. One of the countries where the democratic process perseveres is Zambia. Democracy in Zambia often flies under the radar due to stories of Robert Mugabe or stories from Libya filling our newspapers. However, Zambia, a former British protectorate and current Commonwealth member, has changed democratic government after democratic government since its independence, an incredible fete for such a young country.

Soon, Zambians will once again head to the polls to elect their new President and General Assembly for the next five years. This election sees five time Presidential candidate and United Party for National Development (UPNP) leader Hakainde Hichilema face up against incumbent President Edgar Lungu who is part of the Patriotic Front (PF). President Lungu was elected President in 2015 during an extra-ordinary election following the death of President Michael Sata. During that election, Lungu inflicted Hichilema’s fourth Presidential election defeat in the space of 10 years by a mere 27,000 votes.

On the surface of things, one could suggest that this election is reminiscent of the UK’s 2015 election. President Lungu’s campaign, much like David Cameron’s in 2015, plays on the fact that his party has been in power for a long time and therefore has good knowledge of how to govern the country. His ministers and himself are repeatedly declaring that his party is “walking the talk” and that people should “umuntu ni Lungu” (trust in Lungu). Meanwhile HH, as Hichilema likes to call himself, campaigns on a platform of equality. He claims that the cost of living has now been doubled in the country and that he is ready to help solve the country’s economic problems in the first hundred days of power. While this is undoubtedly similar to the Cameron-Miliband contest in the UK, there is plenty which is boiling under the surface. Meaning that this might turn out to be a very dangerous election.

With HH going into his fifth and probably final election, his supporters are undoubtedly getting impatient. Having lost the previous election by a number of people, less than the number that you could fit into a football stadium, another marginal election loss is on the horizon. Both sides know that this election is too close to call which has led to clashes in the street. A recent riot in Lusaka saw several lose their life and the Zambian electoral commission having to suspend campaigns for a week. This, along with a recent scandal based around the closure of a pro-HH newspaper, has rattled the system. Following the failure to pay a tax bill, a newspaper called The Post was shut down. Various diplomats and HH supporters have claimed foul play, deeming this as censorship. Interestingly, many other newspapers are in a similar position – facing tax problems – but haven’t been shut yet. Meanwhile, Lungu supporters are suggesting that failure to pay tax cannot be excused.

However, the Zambian election does not only look dangerous from a political level. Economically also, Zambians are suffering. Inflation has hit 21% with food prices rising at 25% per month and wages failing to keep up. Considering that nearly 14% of the country’s population is out of work, a dangerous economic situation has been created. The government has intervened and provided social security payments to those who are affected but at the same time the government is running a deficit. This means that they often run out of money with one disastrous consequence being the riot in the University of Zambia, following the government’s failure to pay student allowances on time.

Furthermore, there is reliance on copper mining to provide for the majority of the government’s tax receipts and at a time in which there is global uncertainty due to Brexit, exchange rates are being heavily affected. This has also coincided with power shortages, resulting from a lack of rainfall, meaning that there is not enough power to make their hydroelectric plants efficient. The economic situation is simply uncontrollable for the government. Last year, they even resorted to calling for a day of national prayer for the economy.

If the coming election fails to produce a clear winner with a mandate to drive home harsh economic changes, there could be trouble on the horizon for Zambia. It is easy to compare the economic situation of Zambia to that of much of Europe before it fell into fascism. Without a strong leader resulting from a democratic process, it is quite possible that there will be riots as a result of the election and general unrest because of the failing economy. Indeed, if this election does not go smoothly, there could be danger ahead for one of Africa’s most stable democracies.

What Zambia is displaying is this global trend of distrust for the system. Imagine that this election was taking place in Britain ten years ago. It is without doubt that HH would win with a landslide. With food prices increasing at nearly 25% monthly it would be a non-contest. However, ten years on in Zambia, this not happening. This could be due to two reasons: perhaps, as a writer, I am not knowledgeable enough about Zambian politics to understand this is a normal phenomenon. Alternatively, this is another case of voters going against what they are “supposed” to do. The rise of ideas brought about by those such as Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Brexit have persevered in America and the UK. Perhaps this has spread to Zambia as well, with Lungu offering people something that seems to be in short supply in many democracies, hope and change. Or even better; hope for change.