The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ruling party candidate wins in Zambia… for now.

Opposition candidate Hakainde Hichilema, 52, of the United Party for National Development (UPND), casts his ballot at a school in Lusaka’s affluent Kabulonga suburb on Jan. 20. Hichilema cried fraud just hours after polling stations opened in a tightly contested race to replace Michael Sata, who died in office last year. GianLuigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

On Jan. 20, 1.6 million Zambians went to the polls to vote in a special presidential election arranged after the death of former President Michael Sata. (Technically, some of them had to wait until Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 21 and 22.) Edgar Lungu of the ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF), won the closely fought race, with 48.3 percent of the vote. United Party of National Development (UPND) candidate Hakainde Hichilema lost after garnering 46.7 percent of the vote.

It was unclear who would emerge the victor until late Saturday when the final ballots were counted and acting Chief Justice Lombe Chibesakunda declared Lungu the winner. Hichilema released a statement Saturday before the final declaration was made; in it, he alleged the election had been stolen by Lungu and the PF. The allegations didn’t stop Lungu from being inaugurated early Sunday.

There were 11 candidates in all, but none of the other nine candidates managed to muster even 1 percent of the total vote. Though the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) has been a major political party in Zambia’s recent elections, its candidate, Nevers Mumba, had a woeful performance. Mumba’s poor showing reflects a serious shift in Zambia, which had an MMD president for 20 years, from 1991 until the 2011 elections, when Sata won his first term in office.

Though the UPND lost in this election, Hichilema outperformed any previous UPND showing, gaining support in new areas and increasing support in previous strongholds. UPND was the only party to have increased its vote share in every province in the country in the 2015 election (PF increased its vote share in all but Western province).

Increased vote shares for UPND and PF were largely due to loss of support for the MMD. Infighting led MMD members of parliament to split their support, with some endorsing Hichilema, and others endorsing Lungu or Mumba. Among voters, Lungu edged out Hichilema, advantaged by his incumbent party and support from areas with large voting populations such as Lusaka and Copperbelt provinces.

Voter turnout was at an all-time low in the 2015 by-election.  The last census (2010) estimated Zambia’s total population at 13,092,666 and the voting age population at 6,069,753. Due to time constraints, the Electoral Commission of Zambia did not register new voters, but instead relied on the voter rolls from the 2011 election, in which 5,166,084 Zambians were registered. Of the registered population, 1,671,662 Zambians cast ballots in last week’s election, resulting in the lowest voter turnout in an election on record: 32.4 percent. Political scientist Ken Opalo correctly predicted a low turnout would favor the PF.

The only previous special election in Zambia — in 2008, also following a presidential death — also had low voter turnout: 45.4 percent. A more startling comparison, however, is that the 2015 election had even lower turnout than the 1973 election — during Zambia’s single-party era — when turnout was 39.4 percent. Heavy rains delayed the arrival of ballot papers to rural areas, but it is unclear if rain also prevented voters from turning out; journalists’ reports suggest voters were “undeterred” by the rain.

Lungu has less than two years to govern and convince voters to keep him in office before Zambia’s next election, which is yet to be scheduled but will be held in 2016. Hichilema’s statement shows he has an eye to the future. With the next elections coming relatively soon, Hichilema and the UPND could take this momentum going forward and improve their chances at winning the presidency in the near future.


This post is part of our series of Monkey Cage Election Reports.