General elections will take place on Thursday, 12 August. The recent deployment of the military highlights the risk of electoral violence around the high-stakes polls. As explained previously, the presidential election should be opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema’s to lose given Zambia’s financial and socio-economic crisis. However, the electoral playing field appears increasingly rigged in favor of incumbent President Edgar Lungu. A runoff scenario cannot be ruled out, given that candidates must win more than 50% of the vote, but Lungu’s side will try to avoid this at all costs.
The risk of electoral violence is unusually high in the context of Zambia’s tradition of largely peaceful elections. Lungu has justified the deployment of the army days before the polls because of several localized clashes between the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) and opposition supporters, primarily in the capital Lusaka and elsewhere. However, Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND) has accused Lungu of using the army as a tactic to intimidate voters to eke out another advantage in what is expected to be a tight contest.
With just days to go to the polls, our expectations – outlined in detail here – remain unchanged. By rights, Hichilema should have the edge in the presidential polls. In 2016, he came within 100,530 votes of Lungu, and the socio-economic crisis should give him an advantage in the polls, even factoring in regional divisions among voters.
However, from the outset, the electoral process appears to have been skewed in the PF’s favor via a broad sway of tactics, ranging from the voter registration process and campaign restrictions to changes to the election day process and the strategic deployment of public finances to win rural votes. Therefore, the result of the 2021 polls will be determined not by a free and fair process but by the degree of democratic backsliding that Zambia has witnessed under Lungu. A credible parallel vote count could prove decisive for the outcome.
A runoff scenario cannot be discounted because of the recently introduced 50% threshold. After all, in 2016, Lungu scraped by with 50.35% of the vote and a margin of victory over Hichilema of merely 100,530 votes. This year, it will be worth watching whether any of the 14 remaining presidential candidates, such as the Socialist Party’s Fred M’membe, obtain enough votes to prevent the two frontrunners from crossing the 50% threshold. The races in Lusaka and the Copperbelt – where opposition to the PF has been growing – will prove crucial. Yet even provinces previously considered PF bastions – Eastern, Luapula, Northern, and Muchinga – might deliver fewer votes for Lungu this time.
The risks associated with a runoff are extremely high – it would likely heighten the risk of electoral violence. A second round would also raise opposition expectations of change and increase opposition voters’ turnout. The PF will therefore want to avoid such a scenario at all costs.