Zambia’s former President Michael Sata died before he could even complete one term, prompting today’s by election; in the DRC, Joseph Kabila is attempting to cling on to power beyond 2016, a move that has sparked street protests.
It is estimated that over five million Zambians are eligible and registered to vote in today’s presidential by election that has become a dog fight between Edgar Lungu, the incumbent Minister of Defence (and Justice) and self-made millionaire rancher Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND).
Both are in their fifties, making them relative novices in southern Africa’s political arena. Neither have a vast amount of government experience, and in fact HH (as Hichelema is popularly known) has none at all. But he is seen by some as the frontrunner, if only by the slightest of margins. Following an exhausting campaign that began immediately after Sata’s burial in early November, HH has travelled to all provinces, slamming his opponents in rally after rally and cajoling Zambians to ‘join team HH’ in a slick social media campaign.
Meanwhile, his two main rival parties – the incumbent Patriotic Front (PF) and the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) – dithered. Neither could agree on who their candidate should be and at times, factions in both parties came out to declare their man the candidate. The chaos was eventually sorted out by the courts but by then HH had covered significant ground.
In a bid to catch up, Lungu visited Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and also travelled to Angola and Nigeria to drum up support for his campaign. He hit the ground running upon his return and ever since has been slugging it out with HH through the Zambian media.
Both men are towing a populist line, while firing a barrage of personal insults at each other. Both romise to grow the economy, while reducing poverty and creating more jobs. Within hours of each other, both parties also released their roadmaps for enactment of a new constitution – something that has (unusually for a country with high poverty levels where bread-and-butter issues normally rule the day) become an election issue for the majority of voters.
Neither party can be overly confident of victory and the result could come down to the level of turnout. If elections are won on momentum however, having built up a head of steam over the past two months, HH and the UPND could be set to win by a narrow margin and become the third party to rule Zambia since the return of multi-party democracy in 1991.
A plea this morning by the acting president, Dr. Guy Scott, for the loser to accept defeat, could be interpreted as a signal to his cabinet colleague Edgar Lungu that, at least as far as he is concerned, the writing is on the wall for the PF.
All watching this election, and particularly all Zambians, hope that sporadic inter-party violence during the campaign will not spill over into polling day or post-election day violence. Let us hope that, whatever happens, peace prevails in Zambia in the next few days.
Let us hope the same for Zambia’s northern neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The DRC’s current president, Joseph Kabila (son of Laurent) seems intent on extending his stay in power. His second term as president should end following elections scheduled for 2016.
Having earlier hinted at running for a third term, he now seems intent on extending his second term by amending the electoral law to make the conduct of a census mandatory before the next elections. In a country as large as the DRC, with a large population and poor infrastructure, a census is not something that can be accomplished quickly.
So most predict that this amendment would have the effect of delaying the next elections by quite some time, thereby extending his stay in power significantly. This will make many DRC watchers – and particularly those with a vested interest in central African stability – nervous.
It has also infuriated people in Kinshasa and Goma, where street protests have broken out in recent days. Following the adoption of the amendment by the lower house of parliament, demonstrations on Monday 19th January turned violent when police used tear gas on protestors and allegedly fired on crowds in some areas with live ammunition. Photos of burning streets and brutalised protestors are circulating on Facebook and Twitter.
The protests have largely been led by students and young people, fed up with their leader’s thirst for power. Kabila could learn something by watching the outcome of today’s elections in Zambia. Peaceful transfers of power have become the norm there, and politicians now routinely accept the outcome of generally free and fair elections. This means a lot for stability, and builds confidence in the democratic process. Kabila’s manoevres on the other hand deal democracy a retrograde blow and can only be bad news for the DRC in the long term.