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The opposition UPND party's presidential candidate, Hakainde Hichilema, casts his ballot in Lusaka, Zambia, August 12 2021. Picture: REUTERS/JEAN NDAISENGA
The opposition UPND party's presidential candidate, Hakainde Hichilema, casts his ballot in Lusaka, Zambia, August 12 2021. Picture: REUTERS/JEAN NDAISENGA

Opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema looks set for victory in Zambia’s presidential election, which the incumbent Edgar Lungu declared wasn’t free and fair as vote-counting continues.

With 62 of 156 constituencies tallied in the big copper producer since Thursday, Hichilema had 63% of valid votes cast against Lungu’s 35%.

While the outcome isn’t assured, Hichilema seems headed for a surprise landslide win in an election with a record turnout that had been expected to be a nail-biter.

Whoever wins will urgently need to resuscitate Zambia’s economy, which became central to the election campaign.

Quickly securing a long sought-after bailout deal from the IMF will be important, as will concluding restructuring talks with foreign creditors. Zambia became Africa’s first pandemic-era sovereign defaulter in November when it stopped paying interest on its Eurobonds and other loans.

Lungu, who won power in 2015, said the elections were tainted because of violence in three provinces where Hichilema performed the best. The EU observer mission on Saturday, though, pointed to a lopsided playing field favouring Lungu during the campaign period, where it said there was misuse of state resources and one-sided media reporting.

Hichilema’s United Party for National Development dismissed Lungu’s claims.

“The other side clearly know they have lost and are trying to throw out the entire election just to cling on to their jobs,” spokesperson Anthony Bwalya said. “This is the desperate final act of an outgoing administration.”

Zambia stands out in the region, having changed governments democratically twice since the late Kenneth Kaunda’s rule ended in 1991. The Patriotic Front won power in 2011 under Michael Sata’s leadership, and Lungu was elected in 2015 after Sata’s death while in office. Hichilema, 59, unsuccessfully contested the last five votes.

Lungu said his party is considering its next steps. The winner needs to secure more than half of the ballots to avoid a second round. By law, the loser can petition the results in the Constitutional Court within seven days, which then has two weeks to hear the case.

The head of the US embassy in Lusaka warned ahead of Thursday’s vote that Washington could impose sanctions on any individuals who “promote violence, undermine electoral processes, engage in fraudulent or corrupt behaviour, or otherwise violate democratic rights and the foundations of free elections”.

Near-record prices for copper, which accounts for more than 70% of Zambia’s export earnings, will boost Zambia’s coffers regardless of who wins.

Another plus is a $1.3bn payment from the IMF due in August — separate to the talks Zambia’s in with the fund for a similar amount — that will about double the nation’s foreign exchange reserves.

To conclude programme talks with the Washington-based lender, which will anchor negotiations with external creditors including holders of the nation’s $3bn Eurobonds, Zambia’s government may need to cut energy and farm subsidies that have depleted government accounts in recent years.



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