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Zambian election early count Lungu rejects‘null’ballot as Hichilema takes nearly two-thirds of votes

Lungu rejects ‘null’ ballot as Hichilema takes nearly two-thirds of votes tallied so far

President Edgar Lungu called the election ‘not free or fair’ and said his party was consulting on next steps © Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP

Zambia’s main opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema looked on course in early election results to wrest the presidency of Africa’s troubled second-largest copper producer from Edgar Lungu, who rejected last week’s ballot as a “nullity” and has signalled that he will challenge the outcome. Hichilema led on Sunday with nearly two-thirds of the votes counted by Zambia’s electoral commission so far in dozens of constituencies, ahead of a final result for last Thursday’s election. It was fought amid the country’s worst economic crisis in decades, including a default on billions of dollars of debts.

Zambia’s next government will have to move quickly to finish talks for an IMF bailout and secure deals with creditors in order to resolve more than $12bn of external debts that the country can no longer pay and which are holding back an economic recovery. In a statement on Saturday, Lungu, trailing with about a third of the votes that have been counted so far, called the election “not free or fair” and said that his ruling Patriotic Front was consulting on its next steps. Voting in three opposition stronghold regions was “characterised by violence, rendering the whole exercise a nullity”, he claimed. Lungu said his party’s agents had been chased away from observing voting and were attacked by the opposition. But local election observers from Zambian churches said the agents were present at almost all polling stations.

Political violence had become “disturbingly common” in the election, they added, but ruling-party cadres had been twice as violent as members of Hichilema’s party. Hichilema’s United Party for National Development said Lungu was engaged in a “desperate final act” to remain in power. In a joint statement, other opposition parties called on the president to concede defeat and said a legal bid to delay results would be “an abuse of court process”.

Before the election, analysts and activists had pointed to the tight grip that Lungu’s party held over the campaigning, with rallies all but banned under pandemic restrictions and very little airtime for opposition parties. His government deployed the army ahead of the poll and shut down access to social media such as WhatsApp on the day of voting.

The election was marred by “abuse of incumbency” and “misuse of state resources”, according to EU monitors. But an estimated large turnout on the day of more than two-thirds of the electorate seems to have cut through and key institutions have been difficult for Lungu’s party to manipulate, analysts said. A high court judge threw out the social media ban on Saturday. In the past, Zambia’s army has declined to prop up losing incumbents in a country with a history of multi-party politics stretching back three decades. Hichilema, a businessman who is on his sixth bid for the presidency and is called ‘HH’ or ‘Bally’ by young Zambians, lost to Lungu by the narrowest of margins in a 2016 vote that was marred by allegations of vote-rigging.

Zambia’s sovereign debt was under stress even before it entered its first recession in decades last year in the turmoil of the pandemic. The state defaulted on bond payments in 2020 after Lungu’s government borrowed massively to fund infrastructure. State takeovers of copper mines under Lungu have also backfired even as copper prices rose this year. Hichilema has pledged to prioritise restructuring talks with creditors, which would have to include investors in defaulted US dollar bonds that comprise about a quarter of the external debt.

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