Ahead of a pivotal national poll on Thursday, Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu is seeking re-election in a contest likely to be decided by frustrated young voters amid economic hardship and a pending bailout for one of Africa’s most indebted nations.
The spending incurred by his administration in road constructions, airports and rural healthcare facilities has left the country with over $12 billion in foreign debt which has resulted in hardship for most Zambian denizens.
64-year-old Lungu faces a hot battle against opposition arrowhead Hakainde Hichilema, a businessman who has criticised the incumbent’s economic management.
With debts in excess of $12 billion to external creditors, Zambia spends 30%-40% of its revenues meeting the interest payments on its debt in what Credit rating firms have tagged ‘worrisome’. Last year, its debt-to-GDP ratio almost hit 120%, making it one of the highest in emerging markets and probably double the level considered to be sustainable.
Lungu is campaigning on infrastructural investments and increased state control of mining. In the run-up to the election, copper mining, which generates around 70% of Zambia’s export revenues, has been highly politicised.
Hakainde Hichilema, 59, projects himself as a self-made man, saying he walked to school barefoot as a child and attended university on a government bursary. He was CEO of an accountancy firm before venturing into politics.
He has contested and lost five presidential elections, but narrowly lost to Lungu in 2016’s disputed vote. He was charged with treason and jailed the following year.
With polls seen as unreliable, analysts say this election is too close to call. Lungu deployed the military, as political violence escalated leading to the hacking to death with machetes, leading ruling party supporters.
Statistics from the Electoral Commission of Zambia show that 54% of registered voters are between 18 and 34. Analysts say this could help Hichilema, who has gained groundswell of endorsement among the frustrated, mostly unemployed youth.
Unemployment hit a 10-year high in 2020, according to International Labour Organisation estimates, and the local kwacha currency’s nearly 40% depreciation since January 2020 has made life more expensive for Zambians.
Lungu is planning a complete shutdown of the internet on its election day, August 12 over fears that some negative elements might use the internet to incite and organise protests during the election period.
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