National elections just took place in Zambia.
Elections are always a time of excitement and expectant waiting and hoping. It has been that way in Zambia for the past few weeks, as the country prepared to vote on September 20. I've been impressed by the similarities and contrasts to elections in the USA.
First, terms of office and frequency of elections: Many African countries have a poor record of holding regular elections or having free and fair elections in which it is possible to unseat an incumbent. I spent time in Uganda in 1991 and 1993. Yoweri Museveni was President then, and he is still. (Has been since 1989, and over the years he has become increasingly dictatorial and repressive against his opponents or challengers.) Zambia, on the other hand, following an initial period of one-party rule after independence, has a competitive multi-party system. The president serves a five year term and can be elected twice.
Political parties: There were 11 contenders for president, from 11 different parties. However the two major parties are the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), which has held power for 21 years, and the Patriotic Front (PF), which just won this election. I was afraid that with the vote split so many ways, the power of incumbency would win out. However, Michael Sata of the PH is a well-known political figure who came close to winning the last election and was considered the only viable contender against President Rupiah Banda. His nickname is "King Cobra" after his vigorous and confrontational campaigning style.
Campaign Issues: Banda takes credit for Zambia's stability and positive economic growth. It should be noted that this relatively strong economy has not impacted the lives of the vast majority of citizens, who live in deep poverty and without a system of free education. Development has been possible largely through deals with China to mine Zambia's rich copper and other mineral resources. However, the country realizes little benefit in taxes, despite the dramatic recent increases in copper prices. And the working conditions and wages in the mines are notoriously poor. Sata promised to renegotiate the arrangements with the Chinese so that Zambia would share more of the profits and so that working conditions would improve. He campaigned on job creation, better education, and help for the most vulnerable. He also promises to fight corruption. Easier said than done, but this is a badly needed reform.
Campaign tactics: The usual rallies, marches, and debates took place. Campaign signs and billboards were everywhere. Banda was known to be offering sacks of maize to his supporters and fertilizer to farmers, and of course the roads began to be repaired in the month before the election. Sata had vehicles with loud speakers driving through the compounds urging people to register and to vote for him. He had a clever campaign strategy: his signs urged voters "Don't kubeke!" ("don't tell!"), meaning they should accept the mealie meal from Banda's party, but vote for Sata. International observers criticized Banda's vote-buying activities. Inappropriate use of public money for the incumbent's party activities was also documented.
Uniquely Zambian election customs: All campaigning was required to stop at 6 am the day before the election. I'm not sure why, but it was a welcome relief to have a quiet day. Then Election Day is a national holiday. Our students went to the chapel Monday evening to pray for a peaceful election (some of them come from countries where there has been considerable election violence). During election day, Tuesday, many churches were open for people to come and pray for peace, and our students kept up a prayer and fasting vigil all day. Several people shared with me the idea that the election was already decided by God--but they did intend to vote, they just knew the outcome would be "right," whatever it was.
Post-election activities: Voting ended at 6 pm Tuesday, and people went home. Results would not come out until the next day, since the count was by hand from paper ballots. However, they did expect local results on Wednesday morning, and presidential results later in the day. On Wednesday, announcements seemed to be slow coming. Results were being "verified" in a way no one seemed to understand. International observers had judged the election to have been well-run, with only a few examples of polls opening late or problems with ballot papers. But the delay in learning results made everyone anxious, especially the youth, first time voters, and members of the opposition party.
When the presidential race results had not been reported by Wednesday evening, unrest was evident. Thursday morning at chapel, we were cautioned to stay home or within Mindolo in case disturbances broke out. I intended to do just that, after a quick trip to town to get money and pick up a few fresh groceries for a dinner I was planning for friends. I called a cab so I could just go and come quickly. Well, it wasn't such a good idea. While in ShopRite, there was a panicked exodus of nearly everyone from the store when it appeared that the nearby open vegetable market might be burning. We got out just in time, since shortly thereafter the road was closed by rioting, stone-throwing youths demanding to know the results of the election. I gave the cab driver "hazardous duty pay" and had him take the household workers from our area back to their compound safely. News of demonstrations and destruction in our area, the Copperbelt, continued. People were suspicious that vote tampering was going on.
All day Thursday, reports of the results were promised, but didn't materialize. Then, just before 1 am Friday, I heard a great commotion outside. Cars were honking their horns, fireworks were exploding, people were singing and dancing in the streets outside of MEF in Mindolo Compound. The results were out, and amazingly, the opposition had won with 43% of the vote. (Remember, there were 11 candidates!) Sadly, two people had died in the disturbances in Kitwe on Thursday, but otherwise, calm was restored. And people are still celebrating today.
To have an election--especially one resulting in a change of administration--happen so well is refreshing and hopeful for the future. Zambia is being seen as a model for other African countries. My hope is that the new president will follow through with his campaign promises and will also put transparency and accountability high on his agenda. We are all eager to see what a difference the change will make. We know that words are easier than deeds, but at least there is an opening for a new beginning and a greater priority on the needs of youth and the poor.
The biggest surprise of all came when I learned that the new president was inaugurated today, on the same day the results were announced. No lame duck period here! And Banda left graciously. A model for other countries in Africa, indeed.