Will Zambia’s Election Trigger A Democratic Landslide?

On the 16th of August, opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was declared victorious over incumbent Edgar Lungu in the recent Zambian presidential election. For the third time since independence in 1964, power was peacefully transferred via the ballot box, signalling the strength of Zambian democracy. The strength of Zambia’s democratic institutions has prevailed against Lungu’s increasingly repressive regime, as close to five million votes were cast on 12 August. Hichilema secured a sweeping victory with 59.38 percent of the votes, marking a critical victory against the current rise of authoritarianism in sub-Saharan Africa.

Initially, Lungu described the elections as “not free and fair,” and pointed to a challenge of the results. However, this was short-lived after Hichilema met the constitutional 50.1% threshold by a landslide. Conceding defeat, Lungu stated in a nationally televised address that he “will comply with the constitutional provisions for a peaceful transition of power.” He also congratulated his brother, the president-elect Hakainde Hichilema. In a USAID press release, Administrator Samantha Power commended Zambia’s civil society on “how their vigilant oversight increased the transparency of the electoral process and contributed to the widespread confidence in the results.”

Before the elections, Zambians faced the effects of a second debt crisis. Under Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF) regime, Zambia’s national debt substantially increased from 34 to 110 percent of its GDP, becoming the first African nation to default on a sovereign debt during the pandemic. Hichilema ran on a platform of bringing an end to the entrenched corruption, restoring the rule of law, and putting Zambia’s economy back on the right path – which evidently resonated deeply with civil society. Hichilema faces a daunting first term in office: he will have to navigate between finalizing a debt restructuring agreement with the International Monetary Fund while appeasing the people who voted him in.

Malawi and Zambia are now the first and second states in southern Africa to hold a peaceful transfer of power in recent years. Many politicians have proclaimed that the strength of Zambia’s democracy will cause a landslide effect in the region. As democracies thrive on the principality of a viable opposition, the election of Hichilema is a pertinent source of promise and hope for opposition politics across the embattled region.

Zimbabwe will face a presidential election in 2023, and opposition leader Nelson Chamisa hopes for a similar outcome, tweeting “[Z]imbabwe, you are next!” However, there is fear that this is false hope as the circumstances of Hichilema’s win differ significantly from the Zimbabwean context. First, Zambia’s democratic institutions have a legacy of respecting vote outcomes and repeatedly witnessed peaceful transfers of power.

In contrast, Zimbabwean politics have been dominated by disputed polls, corruption of the parliamentary mechanisms and judiciary, and an entrenched party that has ruled since independence in 1980. Further, Robert Mugabe’s successor Emmerson Mnangagwa of the same ZANU-PF party has repeatedly employed military action against Zimbabweans following civil protests. In comparison, despite fears that the Zambian army would be used by Lungu’s repressive regime to stifle opposition voters, the military remained politically neutral throughout the election.

Zambia’s election has triggered a wave of optimism for opposition politics across the region. While doubts of its ability to be replicated remain high, Hichilema’s victory is a vital message of hope for African democracy. Africa’s younger voters are increasingly connected to the global network and less tolerant of restricted civil liberties. Although voter apathy is high in this generation, pivotal elections like Zambia and Malawi are inspirations to the strength of democracy. They also serve as a pertinent reminder to civil society that even entrenched autocratic leaders – like Lungu – can be removed from power.