JOHANNESBURG – The leader of Zambia’s main opposition party won the country’s presidential election, results announced Monday, pushing back tough ruling party tactics that had fueled fears of a rigged vote.
Opposition Leader Hakainde Hichilema, a businessman who had lost five previous presidential candidacies, garnered more than 2.8 million votes in the election, held on Thursday, toppling Edgar Lungu, which garnered 1.8 million votes. Mr. Lungu had ruled the southern African nation since 2015.
Analysts saw the victory of Mr. Hichilema, 59, who heads the United Party for National Development, as a resounding rebuke of Mr. Lungu’s conduct of a tattered economy. Zambia, a copper-producing nation, has been marred by huge inflation, suffocating debt, rising food prices and unemployment.
In addition to economic problems, opposition activists and politicians have warned that the increasingly repressive tactics of Mr. Lungu’s government will erode the country’s democracy, which has been seen as a model across the country. continent after Zambia’s founding father Kenneth Kaunda reluctantly stepped down. when he lost the first multiparty elections in 1991.
Mr. Hichilema, in a written statement provided to The New York Times by Vanguard Africa, a pro-democracy nonprofit that works with him, said: “In the 2021 election, the people voted to save democracy.
“We know that a healthy and functioning democracy is a democracy in which the voice of citizens can be heard freely,” he added. “We will listen to these voices rather than seek to silence the critics. “
Prior to the elections, irregularities in voter registration led to more voters registered in areas historically favorable to Mr. Lungu’s party, the Patriotic Front. The government cracked down on Mr. Hichilema’s ability to campaign, in some cases blocking his movements. And activists have accused the government of rights violations by violently cracking down on opposition protests and trying to stifle critical independent media.
Even during the vote, the government deployed the military to the streets, citing attacks on Lungu supporters, and restricted access to social media sites, a decision a court quickly overturned.
Despite all the challenges, Mr. Hichilema won decisively.
Zambians were “worried about the possibility of another five years under such a dysfunctional regime,” said Laura Miti, director of the Alliance for Community Action, a non-governmental organization based in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, which works on accountability. public. This made people even more vigilant of the Patriotic Front’s efforts to influence the elections in favor of Mr. Lungu, she said.
“I think, in a way, the attempts to overturn the elections worked against them,” Ms. Miti said. “I think more people have come.”
Although voter registration was higher in Mr. Lungu’s traditional bases of support, turnout was lower there than in areas that tended to favor Mr. Hichilema, analysts said. And Mr. Hichilema’s party has generally narrowly lost in Mr. Lungu’s strongholds, while handily winning the constituencies that are most favorable to it.
When publishing the results of the first rounds of the elections, Mr. Lungu issued a statement declaring that the vote was “not free and fair”.
He claimed that the violence in the polling stations on Thursday had kept his supporters away. Mr. Lungu posted a long thread on Twitter condemning the murders of two of his supporters and cursing the effect he said it had on the elections.
Mr Lungu’s Twitter feed leading up to the vote was riddled with calls to prayer and images of infrastructure projects during his tenure as he sought to present his re-election as necessary to continue this progress. . But that message contrasted with the daily realities of Zambians, said Nicole Beardsworth, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg who has been in Zambia since early last month studying the elections.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people that ‘You can’t eat the roads’,” she said. “And what good is a school if you don’t have a teacher, and what good is a clinic if you don’t have medicine?” This is really what turned the election against the PF and against Lungu.
In his statement, Mr Hichilema said that while it would take time for the economy to move in the right direction, Zambians could expect immediate changes in transparency and governance.
“We will not take the military out to the streets,” he said. “We will not stop civil society activists who speak out in the interest of the people. And we will act quickly to stop the plundering of state resources. “
Ms Miti said that with Mr Hichilema’s margin of victory and the support of MPs outside his party, he could rule with a two-thirds majority – the level of support required to make constitutional changes. In the past, presidents have tried to change the Constitution to their advantage. It will now be up to the Zambians to hold him accountable, she said.
“The question is: what does he do with this power? Mrs. Miti said. “If the citizens fall asleep and say, ‘Well, we’ve done our part,’ then you could easily create another regime that either becomes tyrannical or ruled by self-interest. “