ZAMBIA’S new President Edgar Lungu was sworn in Sunday, pledging to unite the southern African nation and rebuild the economy after narrowly winning a vote rejected by the opposition.
After four days of counting ballots, the Electoral Commission of Zambia Saturday officially announced that the Patriotic Front’s Lungu, 58, had won 48.33% of the vote, closing out his main rival Hakainde Hichilema, who polled 46.67% of the vote. It was a hair thin margin of 27,727 votes, rare in Africa’s presidential contests, except in a few other countries like Ghana.
Lungu Zambia sixth president in a surprisingly close race that will shift the battleground to next year’s general election.
Despite the opposition concerns over alleged rigging, regional leaders lauded Zambia for conducting a peaceful election.
African Union Commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma applauded the people of Zambia for “organising an exemplary, successful and peaceful election.”
She said the vote “sets the pace” for the remaining 17 elections scheduled on the continent this year.
On the balance, the election burnished the country’s relatively stable transition record, Hichilema, running on a United Party for National Development (UPND) ticket, conceded earlier on Saturday, urging his supporters to remain calm for “the sake of Zambia”.
He alleged the election had been “stolen”, he said in a press conference, citing campaign irregularities and counting, as he termed the incoming regime as “illegitimate”.
ECZ chair Irene Mambilima has defended the election process, while also citing logistical difficulties, as other parties also raised their concerns. The challenges encountered in the election also led firebrand opposition leader Edith Nawakwi, who was distant in the chasing pack of nine other candidates, to declare that “poverty and democracy” do not go together.
Zambians started voting on January 20 in a special election called following the death of Michael Sata in October, the country’s second president in six years to die in office. The voting, however, was disrupted for over a day by torrential rains.
The result is a seeming nod for the pro-poor policies followed by Sata, which Lungu has promised to uphold, but the election’s tight nature suggest next year’s election will be a better referendum on the state of the nation.
Few Zambians Mail & Guardian Africa talked to in Lusaka during the week however expected any discernible change in their lives, highlighting a frustration with a politics-as-usual approach to power that has disproportionately benefited an elite few.
Mining industry gripes
Lungu, the former defence minister, sounded like he had picked up these concerns on the trail, promising to focus on building the economy of the continent’s second biggest copper producer, which has been hit by declining prices.
He vowed to continue the policies of his predecessor, including a contentious mining tax regime.
Zambia tripled mining royalties to 20% on January 1 from six percent, putting the government at loggerheads with mining firms already buckling under a fall in global commodity prices.
He said the government’s “desire to ensure companies pay the right taxes will continue”.
His rival in the closely-fought race, businessman Hakainde Hichilema, had promised to reverse the system.
As part of his plan to address poverty, Lungu said his administration will support small scale-farmers in order to improve food security.
Threat of tribalism
Lungu, who comes from a minority Nsenga ethnic group, also spoke out against the threat of tribalism in the country of more than 14 million people.
“Tribalism is a threat to national security and peace. We need to shape the direction of our country, and together we can shape it,” he said to applause
An overlooked factor was the involvement of ex-president Rupiah Banda, who batted from Lungu’s side after his bid to run on a Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) ticket was shot down by a court. Given he still retained solid support locally, his backing is expected to see policy changes that will accommodate him.
There is also a generational change afoot, with both leading candidates under the age of 60, a trend that was interrupted at the death of Levy Mwanawasa in 2009 aged 59. The country’s next two leaders, Sata and Banda, exited office as septuagenarians.
Zambians have voted seven times since the advent of multiparty democracy in the early 1990s, among the most times for an African country following the so-called second liberation era in Africa. A reason for this is that the country’s constitution provides for a stop-gap ballot in the event of the death or incapacitation of a sitting leader. The laws also backs a first-past-the-post system, with no space for a run-off.
The vote will add a tailwind to calls for constitutional reforms to allow a president’s running mate or other leader complete their term should he be unable to, with elections seen as costly in a country where poverty levels remain high.
In his inauguration speech, Lungu spoke to the issue, saying, “We shall therefore continue with president Sata’s legacy and I want to promise you the people of Zambia a new constitution”.
The drafting of a new constitution, one of Sata’s pledges when he came to power in 2011, had been hit by a series of delays. “We will definitely have a people-driven constitution,” he added.
Hichilema said his next focus will be the 2016 election, which he insisted must be held on the platform of a new constitution, but with only a short time remaining, he may be forced to concentrate his energies on extracting more specific reforms.
The ECZ said it recorded the lowest turnout ever in the country, 32.36%, with some areas seeing only 20% of registered voters showing up, due to both inclement weather and apparent voter fatigue.
The race turned out to be unexpectedly tight, as the ruling party battled internal wrangles, allowing Hichilema, one of the country’s wealthiest people, to charge out of the blocks, hitting the campaign trail rally.
But the advantage of incumbency, and a perceived sympathy vote, appeared to be a bridge too far for Hichilema, as the ruling party rallied behind its candidate, handing the opposition leader his fourth consecutive loss.
Lungu had consistently maintained a narrow lead in early results, to the UPND’s protests, and one he did not relinquish.
Lungu is expected to convene his new cabinet next week.
Some Patriotic Front supporters carried aloft a mock coffin for Hichilema, saying they had politically buried the businessman after his fourth attempt at winning the presidency.