Southern Times Writer
Lusaka – Zambians trooped to polling stations August 12 to cast ballots in a general election whose campaign season has been overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Voters will choose a president, legislators and local government representatives.
There were 15 candidates seeking to dislodge the incumbent, President Edgar Lungu (64), who heads the Patriotic Front. His biggest challenger was arguably Mr Hakainde Hichilema (59), who was making his sixth bid for the country’s presidency.
The Electoral Commission of Zambia said results would be announced within 48 hours of the close of polling stations, meaning a president-elect could be declared by August 15.
Should none of the presidential candidates get at least 50 percent of the vote, the top two will go for a run-off within 37 days of August 12.
Chief Electoral Officer Mr Patrick Nshindano said distribution of ballot papers was done ahead of polling, and assured domestic and international election observers of a credible and transparent process.
Pre-poll day surveys gave conflicting forecasts of the outcome.
A survey, conducted by the Political Science Association of Zambia in collaboration with two international think tanks suggested that President Lungu would get 44.5 percent of the vote to Mr Hichilema’s 30.3 percent.
An Afrobarometer survey had 22.9 percent of respondents saying they would vote for the Patriotic Front and 25.2 percent for Mr Hichilema’s United Party for National Development. However, 45.6 percent of respondents to Afrobarometer refused to answer or said they did not know who they would vote for.
President Lungu assumed office in 2015 following the death of President Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front. In that by-election, President Lungu got 50.35 percent of the vote in the first round of polling to Mr Hichilema’s 47.63 percent, ensuring there was no need for a run-off.
The major issues this campaign were the state of the economy, the national debt and health services in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic was a big factor as regards the political environment.
Many countries have struggled to hold elections during COVID-19 because of the limitations the pandemic places on campaigning and actual voting, especially where postal and e-balloting infrastructure is non-existent.
At least 78 countries postponed elections between March 2020 and June 2021, including 14 in Africa, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
COVID-19 precluded the Southern African Development Community, to which Zambia belongs, from deploying a full observer mission on the ground. While many traditional observers are physically absent, virtual missions have been established, and the experience of fellow SADC member Malawi’s successful holding of elections last year has engendered confidence that free, fair and credible polls can be held in the region during the pandemic.
In Zambia, President Lungu decided against postponing the general election, but he did ban rallies, highlighting the “super-spreader” nature of such events.
“What will it benefit you to be holding rallies, but then sacrifice the lives of our citizens and voters to COVID-19 and death?” President Lungu said in May.
However, his critics said he imposed the restrictions to hamstring his opponents, a charge the government and the ruling Patriotic Front party denied.
And following political violence in July, President Lungu authorised deployment of soldiers and other security arms to assist the police in maintaining law and order ahead of the polls. This was after two Patriotic Front supporters were found hacked to death in Kanyama constituency.
Again, the opposition criticised the move.
Police spokesperson Esther Katongo said, “It is not about intimidation, because from the time the military personnel were deployed, we have not heard any adverse report to say that people are being intimidated.”
Of Zambia’s population of roughly 18,921,816, there were 7,023,499 registered voters. The country has 156 constituencies, 1,858 local government wards and 12,152 polling stations were used for the August 12 general election.
Previous elections have returned an average voter turnout of 56.28 percent.