Why Edgar Lungu and his party lost the 2021 elections in Zambia
Hakainde Hichilema’s electoral victory marks the third time an opposition leader has overthrown an incumbent president in Zambia since 1991. The victory leaves the new president and his party, the United Party for National Development (UPND), l ‘immense task of restoring the rule of law, repairing the struggling economy and uniting a divided nation.
Hichilema won the ballot with 59.38% of the vote. He secured a million-vote lead over his closest rival and incumbent, Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front. Lungu polled 38.33%.
The election was in fact a referendum on Lungu and the conduct of his party during his tenure from 2015 to 2021. Zambians have chosen to believe in his opponent’s campaign promises. Hichilema pledged to grow the economy to alleviate people’s suffering, restore the rule of law, end corruption and that, unlike his opponents, he did not contest for a job.
Lungu’s candidacy has been controversial and highly contested. He ended the unfinished term of his predecessor, the late Michael Sata in 2016. He then served a full five-year term after defeating Hichilema in the election held that same year by a narrow margin.
In 2021, Lungu was running for a post in what some claimed was in fact a third term. The Constitutional Court was seized on three occasions to declare him ineligible. The court has ruled in favor of Lungu on all occasions. He revealed that he only served one year, not a full presidential term, between 2015 and 2016 after Sata’s death. This allowed him to go to the polls in 2021.
Ultimately, it was the ballot box that ended his term. The arrogance of power displayed by the Patriotic Front in defying the concerns of the country’s citizens in the way it ran the affairs of state led voters to voice their discontent.
There were a number of reasons why the electorate decided to support their opponent.
Zambians were upset by the decline of democracy under Lungu, as evidenced by intimidation, harassment and arrests of opposition members and government critics. Human rights violations were on the increase.
In December 2020, a public prosecutor and a supporter of the United Party for National Development were shot dead when police fired at a crowd who had gathered near the police headquarters to protest the harassment of Hichilema.
The Lungu government even attempted to change the constitution. Experts said it would have taken control of parliament over the executive, creating a constitutional dictatorship.
Corruption levels have also reached unprecedented levels.
In 2018, the Financial Intelligence Center reported acts of corruption estimated at around $ 284 million. In the same year, Finland, Ireland, Sweden and the UK suspended aid of around $ 34 million because of concerns about corruption and financial mismanagement.
In 2019, the Zambia Financial Intelligence Center Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Trends Report found that public officials influenced the awarding of contracts. Corruption linked to public procurement was one of the main contributors to the proceeds of crime.
Zambians went to the polls in 2021 amid a second debt crisis created under the Lungu government. The cost of living had also skyrocketed, with the annual inflation rate being the highest in about two decades.
Lungu built his campaign on the physical infrastructure put in place by his government and strengthened government control over Zambia’s mines.
He promised to deploy more infrastructure if he was re-elected. But for many in Zambia, economic conditions were tough. The economy deteriorated and many remained unemployed and disgruntled under his watch.
Unemployed youth and households struggling to meet their basic needs in the face of escalating commodity prices blamed the government for deteriorating conditions.
Some analysts have attributed Zambia’s economic woes to an unruly build-up of debt to fund the projects Lungu bragged about.
The combination of high public debt and a weak economy meant that Zambia could not service its debts. Lungu’s government had a fallout in international financial markets after failing to repay its debt in 2020. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) refused to bail out Zambia in 2016 due to concerns over the government’s commitment towards economic reforms.
The IMF resumed talks with Zambia to reform the economy in February 2021, but a deal was unlikely before the election.
Re-election strategy failed
In previous elections, the Patriotic Front used the infrastructure and trump card of tribalism to defeat Hichilema.
But, that failed in 2021.
While Hichilema maintained his popularity in his traditional stronghold in the southwestern region of Zambia, he also broke into Lungu stronghold in the northeast and garnered unprecedented support. His campaign message to end corruption, restore the rule of law and the economy resonated with the majority of voters across Zambia.
His choice of vice president and running mate in Mutale Nalumango also helped him break through in the main Lungu constituency. The educator and former vice-president of the Zambia Secondary School Teachers Union was a member of the Multiparty Democracy Movement in Kaputa in northern Zambia from 2001 to 2011.
Hichilema’s breakthrough in the main Lungu constituency saw Lungu screaming scandal that the 2021 elections were not free and fair.
Restoring a fractured country
Hichilema has her work cut out for her. He must be loved by the whole country and prove that he is a national leader. This will allow him to clear his name of accusations that he is a tribalist.
He also faces the daunting task of undoing the culture of violence and extortion in the political arena by party “cadres” – unemployed men who extort money, provide informal security for party elites. and disrupt the events of the opposition. Hichilema will need to tame his own party cadres and restore sanity through impartial law enforcement to put Zambia back on the path of democratic consolidation.
The task that will make or break Hichilema’s leadership, however, is to fix the economy. He has spoken about it a lot since entering politics, saying he was best placed to deal with Zambia’s economic problems.
Potential supporters of the Zambian economy, such as the IMF, are demanding austerity to restore its economic fortunes and put it on the path to recovery. Hichilema will have to balance austerity with the high expectations of the many young unemployed and struggling people who voted for him.