Zambia’s new President Hakainde Hichilema’s herculean task

Zambian outgoing President Edgar Chagwa Lungu, right, hands over the instruments of power to his successor, Hakainde Hichilema during his inauguration ceremony at Heroes Stadium in Lusaka, Zambia on August 24, 2021.   | Photo Credit: AP

The new Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema’s landslide victory on August 12, in his sixth bid for high office, was a resounding rebuke against an unpopular rule. Mr. Hichilema, leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND), won by about a million votes more than his predecessor Edgar Lungu, of the Patriotic Front (PF), in an extremely polarised climate.

Army patrols in major cities on the eve of voting; a cyber security law enacted months earlier, ostensibly to prevent the dissemination of fake news; a shutdown of social media platforms on election day; and intimidation of independent media only heightened apprehensions of a rigged election. In the event, the country witnessed a record turnout of over 70%.

Contentious moves

Mr. Lungu had set his sight on extending his rule. First, he ensured that he could sidestepthe legally stipulated two-term limit for a President. In December 2018, the constitutional court upheld Mr. Lungu’s eligibility to run in last month’s elections. It maintained that the latter’s ascent in the January 2015 by-election could not be construed as a full first term because he was chosen to serve the remainder of his deceased predecessor’s tenure.

His second objective was to preclude the risk of losing in the event of a close contest. To this end, he devised a constitutional amendment last year to alter the two-stage election procedure. Under the proposal, if the candidate with the maximum vote failed to clear the 50%+1 ballot in the first round of polling, he would be authorised to explore a coalition government rather than face his closest rival in a run-off. The bill did not garner the requisite majority for a constitutional amendment.

No less contentious than these two moves was the manipulation of voter records. The electoral commission deferred the complex exercise of compilation of new voter registers until just a year before the August 2021 polls. The delay triggered a legal challenge on grounds that this contravened the constitutional requirement for continuous registration between elections. As millions of voters were allowed little over a month to register in the midst of COVID-19 restrictions, civil society groups voiced concerns about the potential disenfranchisement of large numbers of citizens. Defying past practice, the authorities further refused an independent audit of the new rolls.

The road ahead

Mr. Hichilema, a business tycoon, embarks upon a difficult task of putting Zambia’s public finances in order. As his government negotiates a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), he can count on the support of the country’s veteran economists and central bankers who have publicly advocated such a deal. Africa’s second largest producer of copper, Zambia last year defaulted on around $12 billion in external debt. The government benefited from a G-20 initiative on concessional terms of repayment on bilateral lending following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Private bondholders have, however, declined Lusaka’s plea to defer interest payments in the absence of an IMF rescue and reforms of its domestic finances. They also have concerns about all creditors being on an equal footing. Their concerns relate especially to the usually opaque terms that the Chinese investors enter into in their trading with African countries.

While the economic priorities of the new government in Lusaka undoubtedly need urgent attention, there could possibly be no trade-off with the consolidation of political and civil liberties that have been a major casualty in recent years. The country was described as one of the fastest eroding democracies in the world, by the 2021 report of the Varieties of Democracy Project. The millions who voted Mr. Hichilema to office would be quite anxious to see that stain erased at the earliest. For the incumbent, that would be no small feat.

Garimella Subramaniam is Director - Strategic Initiatives, AgnoShin Tecchnologies Pvt Ltd

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Printable version | Oct 26, 2021 8:39:31 AM |

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