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Zambia gears up for tense economy-dominated vote

Campaigning was winding down Wednesday on the eve of Zambia’s tightly fought presidential and legislative elections being held against the backdrop of tough economic conditions.

Lungu supporters have piled onto minivan taxis or marched across central Lusaka sporting the bright green regalia of his Patriotic Front party
Lungu supporters have piled onto minivan taxis or marched across central Lusaka sporting the bright green regalia of his Patriotic Front party

All together, 16 candidates are vying for the top job, but the frontrunners are the incumbent Edgar Lungu and his nemesis, business tycoon Hakainde Hichilema, who between them garnered 97.9 percent of the ballots cast in the last election.

Lungu, 64, who is seeking re-election after six years in office and faces disillusionment spurred by economic hardships, staged his final rally from a sprawling government complex.

Hundreds of his supporters followed his speech from two mobile stages set up in a small park outside the vast building.

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

Lungu beat Hichilema, commonly referred to as HH, by just over 100,000 votes in 2016 and even fewer in a 2015 by-election in the country of 17 million.

“In 2021, I will beat HH with 500,000 votes,” Lungu boasted.

“In 2015 I won, 2016 I won and 2021 I will win because now people know me,” he bragged. “Let there be no anger on those that will lose.

“Things are moving well in the country” he said, although his critics point to the high cost of living, poverty and joblessness.

Surveys suggest economic hardship has eroded his support base over the past five years.

Lungu’s campaign has highlighted his push to improve infrastructure in the copper-rich southern African nation and keep mineral wealth in the country.

“We have seen a lot of development in Zambia,” said PF supporter Kanguma Horeb, 36, enthusing over the “many roads, hospitals, flyover bridges (and) schools” that Lungu has built.

But the ambitious infrastructure developments have come at a cost.

Critics accuse Lungu of borrowing unsustainably to fund the infrastructure spending spree, plunging the country into debt — mainly acquired from China — spooking investors.

Hichilema, 59, also delivered his final address Wednesday, broadcast from the patio of his secluded pale yellow residence surrounded by manicured lawns in southeastern Lusaka.

“Our country is going into elections… which should result in a change of government,” said Hichilema, who was the director of Coopers & Lybrand’s Zambia branch at age 26 and went on to become one of the country’s wealthiest men.

“Let the Zambian people decide who will lead them to take them out of this collapsed economy,” he added, denouncing unprecedented hardship.

“Next week we can get into the business of turning around the economy,” Hichilema said, standing confidently behind a wooden podium in a suit and light blue shirt open at the neck.

“You deserve better, you have suffered enough.”

He called on the electoral commission to ensure “free and fair” polls.

Hichilema is facing Lungu for the third time in Thursday’s vote.

– ‘Life’s a hassle’ –

Both camps put aside coronavirus restrictions as they stepped up efforts to woo voters this week, organising lively parades through different parts of the city.

Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND) party has targeted poorer neighbourhoods, where rising living costs and disillusionment have fuelled growing support for the opposition.

“To earn a living as a youth has become a hassle,” said 27-year-old Matero resident Teddy Kandundu during a musical motorcade in Lusaka’s densely populated Matero township.

But Jack Chibune, a 54-year-old taxi driver who supports the PF, said: “There is no wind of change.”

Shouting to be heard over loud music outside the venue where Lungu spoke, he said: “I can’t vote for that man,” referring to Hichilema.

Tension has flared during the campaign, with PF and UPND backers sporadically clashing with machetes, pangas and other home-made weapons.

Three PF supporters have been killed since May, according to the police, prompting Lungu to deploy the military.

Lungu told his supporters that “peace is threatened in Zambia because of one character, one person… We have to name and shame him,” he said, in an apparent reference to Hichilema.

The opposition has accused the PF of using coronavirus as an excuse to thwart their events, as well as seeking to rig the election. AFP

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