- Opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema has won the 12 August presidential election by a landslide, trouncing incumbent President Edgar Lungu by close to 1mn votes.
- Despite three days of tensions and suggestions that Lungu’s side might refuse to accept the results, a relatively smooth transition of power seems ultimately likely to ensue.
- While Hichilema inherits a daunting legacy of crisis, prospects for an IMF deal have improved instantly.
Winning against the odds
After three tense days of counting, the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) on 16 August announced that opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema (aka “HH”) had won the 12 August presidential election with 2,810,757 votes to President Edgar Lungu’s 1,814,201. With results declared from 155 out of 156 constituencies, HH has about 59% of the vote share and a margin of victory over Lungu of 996,556 votes – an unrivaled record in Zambia’s typically tight elections since 1991.
A comprehensive post-mortem is still required on how the UPND candidate managed to win by a landslide when the election process had appeared rigged in favor of the incumbent well in advance of the elections. Even during the voting and counting process, army deployments, internet restrictions, and Patriotic Front (PF)’s posturing raised concerns about last-minute interference.
One factor contributing to Lungu’s defeat was the scale of the turnout, which the ECZ has reported at 70.95%, and the PF seems to have particularly heavy losses in swing provinces like Lusaka and the Copperbelt. In addition, close monitoring and a parallel vote tabulation process might have been crucial to keeping the ECZ honest. Over the weekend, HH’s early lead during the vote counting process began to look increasingly unassailable, which would have made it more difficult and scarcely credible to announce a major swing in favor of Lungu. External pressure might also have helped to keep the process on track, including threats from the US to “hold to account” anyone interfering in the electoral process via targeted visa bans or financial sanctions.
The results, particularly the scale of the PF’s defeat – appear to have caught Lungu and his party by surprise. Over the weekend, internet restrictions, claims of victory by both sides, and incidents of violence in three regions accompanying the vote count raise concerns about Lungu’s readiness to accept the election outcome, the prospects for a somewhat orderly transition of power have improved now that the ECZ has announced the preliminary election results. A Sunday evening victory celebration for Lungu was abruptly canceled. There have been concerns that Lungu may try to mount a legal challenge; his side would need to approach the Constitutional Court within seven days. Nevertheless, the margin of the opposition’s victory may convince Lungu to concede, which should improve the outlook for the transition of power and Hichilema’s inauguration.
The six-time presidential contender will take office with a major mandate, including a strong parliamentary majority. One risk could be that public expectations of change seem to be running too high considering the magnitude of Zambia’s macro crisis. After all, HH inherits Lungu’s daunting legacy of debt crisis, default, double-digit inflation, and deep economic mismanagement.
On the upside, expectations for an IMF deal and genuine reform program will improve instantly. Hichilema has long advocated for fiscal prudence but obviously faces the daunting challenge of digging Zambia out of its debt crisis. There are rumors that he could bring back former Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) finance minister Felix Mutati, probably the one minister who brought Zambia closest to finalizing an IMF deal in recent years. From the IMF’s perspective, goodwill will be much greater towards a fresh, untainted pair of hands in Zambia’s State House.
A coming IMF deal will also begin to improve the prospects for stalled restructuring talks with creditors, even if it remains uncertain how much coordination can realistically be expected under the G20’s fledgling Common Framework for Debt Treatments beyond the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI). While the reform challenges and tradeoffs facing Hichilema will undoubtedly be painful, one short-term boost may come from the forthcoming IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDR) allocation, of which Zambia’s allocation is about USD 1.44bn.