By Hannatu Sadiq
Zambians are set to cast their vote on Thursday, August 12 to elect the next President of the southern African country.
The voters will decide whether to re-elect President Edgar Lungu in spite of the country’s worst economic performance in decades or his 59-year-old male rival, Hakainde Hichilema who will be running for the presidency for the sixth time.
The pole suggest a close election race between the two. Hichilema has already narrowly lost to Lungu twice: in a 2015 by-election after the death of ex-president Michael Sata and then in general polls the following year.
A crackdown on dissent that has raised fears of unrest in the southern African country, after Lungu deployed the army following clashes between the rival supporters in the run-up to presidential and parliamentary polls, a move critics denounced as a tactic to intimidate opposition voters.
Analysts say the result of the closely fought election will impact the level of investment in the copper-rich southern African nation, where more than half of its 17 million people live in poverty.
Surveys suggest the pole may not favor lungu due to economic hardship in the country. Lungu is accused of borrowing unsustainably to finance flashy infrastructure projects, as living costs have soared.
In the capital Lusaka, Lungu’s green Patriotic Front (PF) party manifestos have dominated billboards lining newly built freeways and overpass bridges. They trumpet “achievements” in construction, agriculture and youth employment.
Opposition voters, whose party colour is red, are keeping a low profile in Lusaka, traditionally a PF stronghold.
Some of them even wear green, the ruling party’s colour, to avoid trouble — known as the “watermelon tactic”.
“We do not feel that safe…there is so much intimidation,” said UPND supporter William Njombo, a 42-year-old pastor volunteering at the party’s headquarters.
The country adhered to strict Covid-19 rules this year by holding door-to-door campaigns rather than mass gatherings, although politicians have rallied under the guise of mask-distribution events.
Government critics say the pandemic has been used to thwart the opposition.
Hichilema’s team say they have been barred from entering several parts of the country, including the strategic central Copperbelt Province, their supporters dispersed with tear gas.
Opposition have also raised concerns about a newly compiled electoral register, which some observers allege is skewed towards PF strongholds, and a controversial cybersecurity law that could be used to block the internet.
“The incumbent regime will stop at nothing to manipulate the vote,” UPND spokesman Anthony Bwalya told AFP.
PF officials did not respond to several requests for comment.
Amnesty International warned in June that repression under Lungu had pushed Zambia to the brink of a “human rights crisis”.
They noted the closure of independent media outlets, the jailing of opposition figures and the police killings of at least five people since 2016.
Hichilema himself claims he has been arrested 15 times since he swapped his business career for politics.
“There is apprehension,” said Zambian political analyst O’Brien Kaaba, unsure whether Lungu would concede a defeat.
“The military on the streets creates new dynamics,” he added.
The US embassy in Lusaka has urged the police and military to “apply the law equally and humanely” in the “competitive election”.
Although Zambia is known to be prone to pre-election violence, every transition of power has been peaceful since the former British colony adopted multi-party democracy in 1990.