Spotlight on Zambia

Zambia’s president-elect, Hakainde Hichilema, in 2020. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Hakainde Hichilema has won Zambia’s presidential election in a decisive victory over incumbent President Edgar Lungu, the electoral commission announced on Monday. The official results, with 156 of 157 constituencies reporting, show Hichilema received 2.81 million votes against Lungu’s 1.81 million, out of 7 million registered voters. Hichilema, a perennial candidate, has run for president unsuccessfully five times in the past. This time, on his sixth attempt, he won by the largest margin of victory in a Zambian presidential election in the last quarter century.

Recent events

Lungu, a member of the Patriotic Front (PF) party, has been in office since 2015, when he was elected in a special vote following President Michael Sata’s death in office. He was reelected to a full term a year later in 2016. Lungu narrowly defeated Hichilema, who represents the United Party for National Development (UPND), in both votes. Between Lungu and Sata, who was first elected in 2011, the PF has been in power in Zambia for nearly 10 years.

In the lead-up to Thursday’s vote, Lungu turned to increasingly repressive tactics, creating an uneven playing field for the opposition. Hichilema’s ability to campaign was restricted and his travel sometimes blocked. Opposition rallies were dispersed violently by police, independent media was restricted and a new voter roll was created that favored the ruling party. Even as Zambians went to the polls on election day, the government deployed soldiers to restive areas, blaming the opposition for violence, and blocked access to social media sites, which they claimed was to prevent the spread of disinformation.

A solid victory

Given his overwhelming margin of victory, Hichilema will not have to contest a run-off, as he has easily exceeded the constitutionally stipulated 50.1% threshold for an outright winner. Lungu can still challenge the vote if he files a complaint with the constitutional court within seven days. The president has cast doubt on the election’s legitimacy, declaring on Saturday that the voting was “not free and fair” due to violence in three regions and the killings of two PF supporters. But on Monday, Lungu conceded defeat, congratulating Hichilema and committing to hand over power peacefully.

The bigger question now is not who the winner will be, but how Zambia’s new president will lead. Growing repression under Lungu had brought the country to the brink of a “human rights crisis,” Amnesty International warned in June. Monday’s results have eased concerns that Zambia’s democracy, widely viewed as a model in Africa since a multiparty system was restored in 1991, will erode.

The road ahead

But Zambia still faces enormous challenges on the economic front. COVID-19, low prices of copper (its main export commodity), and a fiscal crisis triggered by years of overspending have wreaked havoc on Zambia’s economy. Inflation is running at 25%, the economy is projected to grow just 1% this year, and Zambia in November became the first African country to default on its sovereign debt. Addressing these issues and reviving the economy will be Hichilema’s biggest task.

There are some positive indicators on the horizon for Zambia. Talks with the International Monetary Fund regarding future support and a debt restructuring plan, on hold until after the vote, will soon resume. And Hichilema could have as much as a two-thirds majority in parliament due to his support from MPs outside his party, making it easier to pass important legislation. Digging Zambia out of its current predicament would be an immense challenge for any president. But with fiscal reforms, parliamentary support, and a broad public mandate, for Hichilema it may just be within reach.

John Dashe
Communications Intern,
Africa Program



Center for International Policy, Africa Program

The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement