The elections’ outcome says much about people’s experience over the past five years and their willingness to trust politicians who might – or might not – have betrayed their hopes before.
The elections lay the ground for the next five years, during which, partly on the basis of the claims of political thuggery between the two main contesting parties, we could expect the ruling Patriotic Front to be more closely and critically monitored than ever before.
Five years down the road from a hard-won victory over the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD), the PF can claim robust support from its core constituencies, based largely on its populist appeal.
However, with the economy on the back foot, and given the sparks of inter-party violence we have seen over the past year, it would be folly for political parties to take it as a given that loyalty will continue to hold as a foundation for commitment among their core constituencies.
An increasingly politically conscious population could yet begin to make more objective decisions about what government it wants.
This past election has seen at least a million new voters too young to have a personal experience with the shoots of the multi-party politics ushered in by the MMD’s victory over UNIP in 1991.
To some extent, the undercurrents of tribalism that contributed to part of the political militancy among political party cadres can be traced to the switch from the tribal-balancing-act of the Kenneth Kaunda years to the regionalisation brought on by multi-party politics.
Youngsters, trapped in boredom and tempered by unemployment and poor education, were easily the pawns in these elections that saw inter-party violence spike to an unprecedented level.
The age-old political remedy of wheeling in the party heavyweights to talk down the ire was remarkably absent in this year’s elections.
We couldn’t agree more with the sentiments of the election observers who observed that neither of the two main contestants – Edgar Chagwa Lungu and Hakainde Hichilema – did enough to rein in their cadres.
All told, there is a rich story to read in the results of these elections if we analyse swings in turnout and voter behaviour. Some 56.45% of the 6,698,372 registered voters turned up to cast their ballots on August 11.
Several commentators have highlighted the fact that President Lungu officially won the August 11 election by 100,530 votes. This is certainly an improvement on last year’s presidential by-election, where he only secured 27,757 more votes than the UPND’s Hichilema.
However, less focus has been directed toward the fact that Lungu avoided a run-off by a margin of just 13,022 votes. The amended Constitution states that a president must secure 50%+1 votes to win. Otherwise, the two leading candidates would go head-to-head in a run-off.
Consider the arithmetic. Lungu was announced the winner with 1,860,877 votes (50.35% of the valid votes cast) against Hichilema’s 1,760,347 votes (47.63%), out of a total of 3,695,710 valid votes cast. Fifty percent of the valid votes is 1,847,855 votes. Therefore if 13,022 more votes had swung Hichilema’s way, Zambia would have seen a presidential run-off.
That said, the UPND needs to do some deep soul-searching in the wake of August elections – even despite its oft-repeated claims of political thuggery on the part of PF cadres, perceived bias of the Electoral Commission of Zambia, and suspicions of inflated voters rolls ahead of August 11.
In the main, if the party continues to be seen as largely southern based, with a dose of allegiance from the western and north western provinces, it must draw the conclusion that it has no conceivable future as a ruling party.
Sadly, the referendum failed as a result of a lack of a collective commitment by political parties, the media and an increasingly politicised civil society to thoroughly educate voters on what this particular referendum was all about.
In the final analysis, when the general elections come round again in 2021, we hope to see a situation where avarice, arrogance, corruption and cronyism are punished by the electorate. We yearn for a situation where traditional loyalties, no matter how hard-earned, will not protect political parties from punishment by voters. That would be a sure sign of democratic consolidation.