United Party for National Development (UPND) leader Hakainde Hichilema secured a resounding first-round victory to win Zambia’s 12 August presidential election. Provisional results released early on 16 August, Hichilema won 2.81 million votes ‒ more than enough to avoid a second-round run-off election. Incumbent President Edgar Lungu came a distant second with 1.81 million votes. Despite initial statements questioning the legitimacy of the election, Lungu conceded defeat around midday on 16 August, paving the way for an orderly transition of power.
The scale of Hichilema’s victory also means that the UPND is expected to have won the majority of parliamentary seats in the country’s National Assembly as the legislative election was also held on 12 August. The final results of the legislative election still need to be released but it is clear that Hichilema has received a commanding mandate to govern and pass the investor-friendly legislative agenda he campaigned on.
In many ways the election results were unexpected. While Hichilema was clearly the preferred candidate of a majority of Zambians, Lungu had effectively used his control over the state and the country’s Covid-19 prevention regulations to limit the opposition’s ability to campaign while allowing Lungu and the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) free reign to travel the country rallying support. This was compounded by worrying moves by the government such as temporarily blocking the internet and deploying the military to opposition strongholds. However, these tactics appear to have backfired, angering Zambians who were already frustrated with Lungu’s ineffective administration, ongoing corruption, and an ailing economy. These frustrations drove voter turnout to above 70%. Youth turnout is believed to be particularly high, with most young voters backing Hichilema.
Hichilema’s victory has widely been positively received. Investor reaction has been particularly upbeat as indicated by the fact that Zambian Eurobonds surged by 8.3% following news of the UPND victory. This illustrates the optimism that Hichilema will reverse the Lungu-era hostility to the mining and resources sector and limit state interference. The UPND’s election manifesto was openly pro-business and aimed at improving transparency and ease of doing business in the country in an effort to encourage much-needed international investment.
The jubilation around Hichilema’s victory may be short-lived. The incoming president faces significant challenges and has limited room to manoeuvre. Zambia’s economy is struggling to remain afloat. The country’s debt to GDP ratio is over 91% and a large proportion of the country’s budget is dedicated just to covering the interest on the country’s debt. In addition, the country’s headline inflation exceeded 20% earlier this year. Hichilema will need to rapidly bring the economy under control and boost investment if Zambia is to avoid further debt defaults and a deepening economic crisis. He will also need to do this in the face of the global economic headwinds and supply constraints caused by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Further, Hichilema will be inheriting the Lungu’s civil service. The PF has governed Zambia since 2011 and in that time has installed its own supporters and loyalists in key administrative public service positions. As such, Hichilema will need to implement substantial public sector reforms alongside his economic and political reforms if he is to have any success.
Aside from concerns over Zambia’s economic future and the UPND’s untested leadership, it must be noted that Hichilema’s victory and Lungu’s concession is another major step in cementing Zambia’s reputation as one of the more functional democracies in the region. This will be the third successful handover of power in Zambia since the country became a multiparty democracy in 1991. The fact that this occurred despite the cynical efforts of the incumbent to undermine the democratic process is even more notable as it illustrates that Zambia’s population is intolerant of efforts to undermine the system. However, there are concerns that Hichilema might be on track to secure a super-majority (two-thirds) in the National Assembly. This would itself pose a threat to the country’s democratic order as it would give the UPND and Hichilema virtually unchecked power, enabling the party to amend the country’s constitution. While the UPND is unlikely to take such drastic action now while it is benefiting from widespread goodwill both domestically and abroad, the temptation will increase as Hichilema nears the end of his term or faces any major scandals or obstacles to his rule.
However, in the immediate future, Zambia is expected to enjoy a period of increased investor optimism as the new government is granted a honeymoon period to settle in and begin to address the country’s multiple challenges. Hichilema is expected to reveal his cabinet in the coming days which will give further insight into his intentions and priorities as President. It should be noted that there remains a possibility that some PF supporters might stage protests in the coming days but, since Lungu has conceded, the transition period is expected to be largely peaceful.