Opposition leaders claim that democracy in Zambia is under threat as President Edgar Lungu and his Patriotic Front government scramble to hold on to power ahead of the elections scheduled for 11 August. As we reported previously, the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) has grown in strength and confidence since its leader, Hakainde Hichilema, narrowly lost the presidential by-election that brought Lungu to power in 2015.
Low copper prices have constrained the government’s ability to respond to public concern regarding high unemployment, while the country’s most influential newspaper, The Post, has moved firmly into opposition to the government. The pressure appears to have told on the government, which now stands accused of a number of different irregularities. According to the respected Zambian commentator, Sishuwa Sishuwa, the level of accusations relating to preparations for the next election mean that a disputed outcome may soon be inevitable.
For example, The Post newspaper has carried accusations that the Electoral Commission of Zambia awarded the contract to bring the ballot papers to a little-known Dubai based firm – despite the fact that it quoted a price that was more than double the amount paid to the company that normally does the job, in order to facilitate economic and political malpractice. In response to such headlines, the Patriotic Front government appears to have leant on the Zambian Revenue Authority to call in debts owed by The Post, leading to a raid on the newspaper on 21 June.
Worse still, rumours are now circulating that the government has developed a plan – Project 777 – on how to rig the elections that includes members of the military, Electoral Commission, the intelligence services and civil society. At the same time, the government stands accused of recruiting voters from neighbouring countries to vote in Zambia, with the UPND claiming that as many as 500,000 illegal voters have been added to the electoral roll. That President Lungu has felt the need to come out and publicly deny these accusations has done little to make them go away, or to boost the confidence of the opposition.