Zambians vote amid internet restrictions, results expected Sunday

A woman proceeds to cast her ballots at a polling station in Lusaka on August 12, 2021, as Zambians elect their next president after a tense campaign dominated by economic woes in Africa's first coronavirus-era sovereign defaulting country.
A woman proceeds to cast her ballots at a polling station in Lusaka on August 12, 2021, as Zambians elect their next president after a tense campaign dominated by economic woes in Africa's first coronavirus-era sovereign defaulting country. © Marco Longari, AFP

Zambians flocked to vote for a president Thursday in tightly contested polls pitting incumbent Edgar Lungu and his long-time rival Hakainde Hichilema, as the internet saw partial restrictions.


After 12 hours of voting, polling stations closed at 6pm (1600 GMT) with several hundred still in queues waiting to cast ballots.

The closely fought presidential election is seen as a test of the country's democratic credentials after a campaign dominated by economic woes and a debt crisis.

Sixteen presidential candidates are vying for the top job, but the frontrunners are incumbent Edgar Lungu, 64, and his long-time rival Hakainde Hichilema, a business tycoon, who are facing off at the polls for the third time.

Hichilema, 59, who is running for a sixth time, is backed by an alliance of 10 parties.

A flagging economy and rising living costs have eroded Lungu's support base in recent years, surveys suggest, and the election could be even tighter than 2016 polls when he narrowly scraped a victory over Hichilema.

Lungu, who has held the post for six years and is a lawyer by training, is accused of borrowing unsustainably, particularly from Chinese creditors, to finance a spree of infrastructure projects.

Under him, Zambia became the first African country to default on its sovereign debt since the coronavirus pandemic began, while inflation soared to 24.6 percent in June, the highest rate in more than a decade.

Africa's second biggest producer of copper after the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the eighth producer in the world, missed another debt repayment this year.

Winding queues of hundreds of people formed before dawn outside polling stations, hours before voting was due to open around densely-populated and working class neighbourhoods of Lusaka.

Almost mid-way through the voting day in central Lusaka's popular Mtendere township, hundreds of voters patiently waited for their turn to cast ballots, chatting away or sucking on ice lollies, or popsicles, sold by a roving vendor.

The atmosphere was relaxed and festive, with nearby taverns serving beer while music blasted from cars driving in heavy traffic on bumpy roads.

Internet partially shut down

But by afternoon the internet was partially shut down, with global observatory NetBlocks confirming that "social media and messaging platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Messenger are now restricted".

 Student Edward Musayani, 26, who had been queueing for four hours to vote, said he checked his phone in the early afternoon and found that WhatsApp and Facebook had been switched off.

 "That's quite unfortunate in a democratic dispensation like ours... People should have access to information to make informed decisions," he said while waiting to vote in the Chawama township.

 "You are shutting down the voice of people and this will impact the election, how people view the election... People will be asking why," he said.

 The government had threatened to cut off internet access if people peddled "falsehoods that could destabilise" the election.

'Hoping for change'

Lungu's critics point to the high cost of living, poverty and joblessness.

In Chamawa township unemployed school teacher Ernest Chimba, 35, was "hoping for change... because the cost of living in Zambia has gone really high".

Tensions flared in the run-up to polling in this southern African country of 17 million people.

Supporters of Lungu's Patriotic Front (PF) and Hichilema's United Party for National Development (UPND) clashed in the runup to voting, prompting Lungu to order an unprecedented deployment of the army.

The president has also grown tough on dissent since he took power in 2015, raising concerns of heavyhandedness if results are contested.

Around seven million citizens are registered to vote for a president, legislators and local government representatives.

The winning candidate must acquire more than 50 percent of votes to avoid a second vote. Analysts say a runoff, which would be within 37 days of the first round, is unlikely, however.

Lungu is confident of bagging half-a-million votes more than Hichilema.

Hichilema is pinning his hopes on disenchantment with Lungu's administration of the economy to clinch the presidency.

The opposition has accused the government of seeking to rig the ballot – allegations the PF has rejected.

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres is "closely" following the vote and called on all candidates "to do their part to create an environment conducive to credible, inclusive and peaceful elections", his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Analysts fear tensions could flare after the vote.

There will "likely to be contestations on the results, that may catalyse some unrest, especially in the urban areas of Lusaka and the Copperbelt", said Patience Mususa, of the Nordic Africa Institute.

Official results are expected by Sunday.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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