How did voters, the opposition and civil society manage to defeat an entrenched and repressive regime?
Zambia has done it again. On 17 August, President Edgar Lungu conceded defeat and congratulated Hakainde Hichilema on a remarkable victory. In the election five days earlier, the long-time opposition leader had won in a landslide, defeating the incumbent along with 14 other candidates. For the third time in the country’s history, power changed hands via the ballot box – not just democratically but peacefully. Along with Malawi, Zambia is now leading the way as one of a very small number of countries to move away from authoritarianism during the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to the fact that it happened as democracy is generally receding worldwide, Zambia’s achievement is particularly striking for two reasons. First, it came after a period of growing repression that had weakened key democratic institutions and led to fears the country could become the “new Zimbabwe”. Second, despite President Lungu enjoying so many advantages of incumbency that the opposition was effectively competing with one hand tied behind its back, Hichilema won comprehensively. While several commentators were predicting a second-round run-off would be needed, the opposition figure garnered 2.8 million votes, or 59% of the valid votes cast. That was 1 million votes more than Lungu in a country with just 7 million registered voters, or a winning margin of over 20 points.
After every opposition victory in Africa, there is a wave of optimistic media coverage wondering whether further transfers of power are about to be unleashed across the continent. With the 2021 Zambian elections, this has been heightened by the emphatic nature of Lungu’s defeat. However, while there have been moments when events in one country have inspired those in another – such as the impact of the freeing of Nelson Mandela on pro-democracy movements across Africa in 1990 – there is a tendency to exaggerate the spill over effects of a democratic process in one country. Nothing that happened in Zambia shifts the political reality in Cameroon, Uganda, or Zimbabwe. Hichilema’s success can only be repeated if the conditions that gave rise to it are also replicated.
Put another way, Zambia’s democratic success story will only inspire change elsewhere if the political context and the strategies used by opposition parties and civil society groups are reproduced. That will be extremely difficult in more authoritarian states with less experience of the will of the people determining who holds power – and in some countries it will be all but impossible in the near future. This caveat notwithstanding, the lessons of the Zambian election about how entrenched authoritarians can be removed from power are worth learning – for opposition parties, civil society groups and all those who care about democracy.
It’s the economy, stupid
The most obvious lesson from Zambia is that economic crisis can undermine the hold on power of genuinely repressive regimes. This might seem obvious, but the focus on ethnic, regional, or racial voting in Africa has often obscured the extent to which people vote on the economy. Swing voters are more likely to line up behind the opposition, and ruling party supporters are most likely to stay at home, when they blame the government for economic pain.
Ahead of the election, nearly all of Zambia’s key economic indicators were extremely poor. Unemployment was high and particularly acute among the youth, one of the groups that helped swing the outcome in Hichilema’s favour. Corruption was endemic, inflation was in the double digits, and the high cost of living left about 40% of Zambians unable to eat as normal. The staggering external debt – $12 billion, up from $1.9 billion in 2011 – took money away from social services, while service delivery was so poor that sporadic protests flared up in urban centres.
Exploiting this favourable economic context, Hichilema positioned himself as the business savvy leader that Zambia needed, giving people hope that the country can overcome the recent debt default and put money back into people’s pockets. Against this backdrop, Lungu’s efforts to buy support by channelling money through “empowerment schemes” proved to be ineffective. As in the famous opposition victories of 1991 and 2011, Zambians took money and gifts from whoever offered them, but voted with their hearts and their brains.
Opposition learning and unity
These elections were Hichilema’s sixth attempt at winning the presidency and, crucially, he had learned at least three key lessons from previous defeats. First, the opposition was more coherent this time, after Hichilema persuaded eight opposition parties to back his United Party for National Development (UPND) ahead of the election. Although the allying parties were small and lacked clear power bases, they were led by well-known figures, including some who had served as ministers under Lungu. Importantly, these individuals were united in their opposition to the governing Patriotic Front (PF) and seen as credible by many voters. This elite pact legitimised Hichilema as an inclusive national leader and presented the UPND as the most viable vehicle for removing the PF from power.
Second, Hichilema made a real effort to expand his support base beyond his traditional constituencies in the Western, Southern and North-western provinces. He targeted the urban areas of Lusaka and the Copperbelt, where he focused on unemployment and rallied youths on social media, speaking in their language and using the popular moniker “Bally”. He also appointed Mutale Nalumango, an experienced politician from the Bemba-speaking Muchinga and Northern province – ruling party bases – to be his running mate. While the opposition was becoming broader, the PF was beset by factionalism, driven by dissatisfaction with Lungu’s decision to run for a third term and his deeply unpopular choice of running mate, Nkandu Luo.
Third, the UPND protected the vote. Unlike in 2016, when UPND election monitors had a limited presence in key areas, the opposition appears to have deployed agents in almost all the 12,152 polling stations in 2021. This made it very difficult for the government to manipulate the vote. Once the counting was done and the votes were tallied at constituency level, party agents faxed the signed results forms to their representatives at the national totalling centre in Lusaka to make sure their figures matched those announced by the electoral commission. An early intervention by UPND representatives during the official announcement of results to stop the release of disputed figures for the Feira constituency laid down an important precedent and shut down the opportunity for electoral fraud.
Civil society matters
Civil society groups in Africa have often been criticised for being too aggressive on the one hand or too pliant on the other. They are regarded as too elitist by some, or too reflective of the divisions in society by others. Similarly, international funding for civil society has often been branded a waste of resources by those who lament “Dead Aid”. Zambia, however, shows just how important civil society groups can be, and why it is essential to support them through hard times.
In 2021, they played several critical roles. First, civic organisations campaigned throughout the country to raise awareness on the importance of voting and vote protection. Institutions like Alliance for Community Action (ACA), Governance, Elections, Advocacy, Research Services (GEARS) and People’s Action for Accountability and Good Governance in Zambia held a series of meetings on voter education, sensitising the population. Civil society organisations also carefully monitored all 156 constituencies on voting day. While GEARS deployed about 10,000 observers, the Christian Churches Monitoring Group (CCMG), which also deployed 1, 600 monitors, conducted a parallel vote tabulation that captured the election results at polling station level, ensuring that any manipulation would be exposed.
Finally, civil society initiated several court cases against the abuse of state power. The persistent attack on the erosion of the rule of law and human rights raised awareness among voters and helped delegitimise the governing party. Though they did not always win, the cases drew attention to the erosion of democracy. There were also some important victories, not least by legal advocacy group Chapter One Foundation, which successfully obtained a court order that stayed the government’s shutdown of social media platforms on election day.
The diffusion of democracy
These lessons can be learned by opposition parties and democracy activists across the continent. But they will not always be easy to reproduce. While Hichilema’s win was celebrated by other opposition leaders such as Zimbabwe’s Nelson Chamisa and Uganda’s Bobi Wine, the conditions that made it possible are not present in their respective countries.
Although Lungu’s regime was repressive, and there were fears that the army would be used to repress opposition protests, the military remained politically neutral. And while many Ugandans and Zimbabweans demand change, there is no popular memory of replacing the government via the ballot box to give voters confidence that their votes matter, and to empower the electoral commission to believe it is safe to announce an opposition victory. The lessons of Zambia are still pertinent in these countries, but it will take many years of struggle to put them into practice.
Sishuwa Sishuwa is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Zambia and Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Institute for Democracy, Citizenship and Public Policy in Africa at the University of Cape Town. Follow him on twitter at @ssishuwa. Nic Cheeseman is the Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and author of ‘How To Rig an Election’. Follow him on twitter at @Fromagehomme.