Zambia Election Buffeted by Economic Turmoil

Zambia votes for a new president on Thursday, with authorities bracing for unrest after a fractious campaign framed by a commodities crisis that is making waves across the continent.

Supporters of the rival candidates in what has long been one of Africa’s most stable democracies have repeatedly clashed on the streets, forcing a 10-day halt to campaigning in the capital Lusaka in July.

Hundreds of additional police officers have been deployed in flashpoint regions to combat violence. Officials at the presidency say the military has also been put on high alert.

The race pits incumbent Edgar Lungu against Hakainde Hichilema, a wealthy businessman who Mr. Lungu edged out by 28,000 votes in snap elections last year.

The country’s economic pain has infected its normally placid politics, with Mr. Lungu threatening a crackdown on the opposition and his opponent whipping up populist rhetoric.

“If they push me against a wall, I will sacrifice democracy for peace,” Mr. Lungu said at a July rally in Zambia’s copper belt, a key constituency.

Nearly a quarter of Zambia’s 6.7 million voters live in several mining towns along its northern border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Once the engine of the country’s double-digit economic growth, the copper industry is now grappling with spiraling unemployment and rising social tensions.

Amid a broader decline in commodity prices, copper has fallen to six-year lows, aggravating the impact of an El Niño-induced drought and a crippling electricity crisis. Mines have cut thousands of jobs and several food manufacturers have closed. Growth has collapsed to the lowest level in two decades and inflation has surged past 20%. 

The prospect of protracted unrest in one of the few African nations with an established history of peaceful and competitive elections spotlights how the economic impact of the commodity crash is evolving into a political shock that could topple governments. 

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the government is facing unprecedented public outrage, as mines cut jobs and scale down operations. In South Africa, the ruling African National Congress last week suffered its worst electoral defeat since the end of apartheid, losing control of two major cities, including the capital Pretoria.

“The stakes are extremely high in Zambia’s election,” said Gary van Staden, an analyst with Cape Town-based research firm NKC Africa Economics. “It is now ascent or descent and the margins for error and miscalculation are hair-thin.”

Amid mounting dissent, Mr. Lungu’s security forces have arrested several journalists and opposition leaders, drawing condemnation from the U.S. and the European Union.

In June, authorities closed the country’s largest privately owned newspaper, ostensibly over unpaid taxes, though the paper’s editor called the move a “political witch hunt.” The U.S. and EU chided his government. Mr. Lungu told the Western diplomats to pay the paper’s $6.3 million tax bill if they wanted to see it back on newsstands.

Activists said Mr. Lungu could interfere in the voting process, a charge the government denies.

Mr. Hichilema, once popular with the middle class and business community, has switched to populist policies, with promises of jobs and free farming materials, helping him to make inroads into his rival’s strongholds. It isn’t clear how he would pay for them.

“You can vote for me to create jobs and lower food prices, or you can choose Lungu and five more years of empty promises,” Mr. Hichilema told supporters in late July in the copper-producing North-Western province.

Mr. Lungu has promised to diversify away from mining to make the economy more resilient.

Though there are no reliable opinion polls, political analysts in Zambia said the vote looks close.

“As things stand, Zambia faces the prospect of election violence and a disputed outcome and that could set the country back a decade,” Mr. Van Staden said.