FREEPRESS – Violence during Zambia’s election campaign could frighten people away from the polls, a watchdog said Wednesday, on the eve of voting in a country known for its relative stability.
A tense presidential race between the two leading candidates, incumbent Edgar Lungu and businessman Hakainde Hichilema, has been marked by clashes between rival supporters.
The Zambian Elections Information Centre (ZEIC) said at least three people had been killed and many injured during the campaign.
“Tensions were high between political party supporters,” the ZEIC said in its pre-election report released in the capital Lusaka on Wednesday.
“Escalating levels of violence may have a negative impact on the elections and reduce voter turnout.”
“Political cadres have increasingly become unruly to the extent that they have shown no regard for law enforcement agents,” it added.
The ZEIC added that the “political environment had changed drastically” in Zambia since previous elections, which were generally peaceful.
Just 18 months ago, Lungu narrowly won a snap election against Hichilema, and the two are the front-runners in Thursday’s election between a field of nine candidates.
Earlier this week, supporters of Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF) attacked an open-top campaign bus of Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND) in Lusaka.
Election commission chief Esau Chulu on Wednesday described the spate of violence as “unprecedented” and warned it had “marred Zambia’s historic record of peaceful elections”.
In July, the commission halted campaigning in the capital for 10 days in an effort to reduce clashes.
On the campaign trail, Lungu vowed to use “draconian measures” to prevent violence, while Hichilema complained that the ruling PF party was backing attacks on UPND supporters.
– Bitter contest –
Only 27,700 votes — less than two percentage points — separated Lungu and Hichilema in the 2015 ballot.
Hichilema alleged fraud had denied him victory.
The 2015 vote gave Lungu the right to complete the term of the late president Michael Sata, who died in office of an undisclosed illness.
New constitutional rules stipulate that the winner needs an overall majority above 50 percent.
It means a second round run-off could be held weeks after the election, which may heighten hostilities further.
Zambia, ruled by Kenneth Kaunda from 1964 until 1991, has suffered a sharp drop in economic performance and thousands of job losses in its crucial copper-mining sector after global commodity prices slumped last year.
GDP growth has fallen from more than 10 percent in 2010 to 3.6 percent last year — its slowest since 1998.
Inflation is over 20 percent, and the government runs a huge budget deficit, with talks of an IMF bailout likely to begin soon after the election.
Ahead of Thursday’s vote, the ZEIC called on candidates to “avoid speculation of fraud” and said results should be released promptly and transparently to avoid disputes.
“The UPND in the last elections cried foul,” said Dimpho Motsamai, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Johannesburg.
“They are unlikely to concede defeat without a fight, but we are hoping that this fight happens not in the streets but happens in the courts.”
“The risk (of violence) is high. The relationship between the opposition and the government is very unhealthy and very antagonistic.”
The ZEIC report said that widespread youth unemployment was fuelling participation in the violence.
Both Lungu and Hichilema held final rallies in Lusaka on Wednesday.
Zambia also votes on Thursday to choose lawmakers and local councillors, and in a referendum on an amended bill of rights.
Early result are expected late Friday and on Saturday.