LUSAKA, Zambia (AP) — Supporters of Zambian opposition candidate Hakainde Hichilema have begun celebrating Saturday as early election results show him leading in the tightly-fought, tense presidential race.
Ignoring calls by the Electoral Commission for people to wait peacefully for the final official results, young opposition supporters drove through the streets of the capital, Lusaka, playing music and singing. They gathered at the headquarters of Hichilema’s United Party for National Development.
But signaling that he may not accept defeat, President Edgar Lungu asserted that the elections had not been free and fair in three provinces seen as opposition strongholds, citing violence and killings of his supporters, allegedly by the opposition. Lungu claimed that ruling party polling agents had been brutalized and chased away from voting stations, leaving his party’s votes “unprotected.”
Lungu said that although he notified the electoral commission of his concerns, “they have continued announcing the results.” His Patriotic Front party is “consulting on the next decision we have to make,” he said in a statement released by his office.
Lungu’s statement indicates that he may challenge the validity of the election in order to stay in power, said analysts.
“It is now looking worryingly like he will refuse to stand down and push for the election to be canceled,” tweeted Nic Cheeseman, professor of politics at the University of Birmingham, who is in Zambia to follow the elections.
Voter turnout was 15% higher than in the 2016 polls and the early results show a “big swing” in favor of Hichilema and his UPND, Cheeseman told The Associated Press.
Results from 31 of the country’s 156 constituencies has Hichilema in the lead with 449,699 votes to President Edgar Lungu’s 266,202. The commission said it will update the results as votes from the constituencies are tabulated and expects to announce the final results by Monday.
An overwhelming turnout, particularly by youthful Zambians who make up a majority of registered voters, saw long lines in front of polling stations on election day, Thursday. Many polling stations had to close late to accommodate the voters, said the electoral commission, which noted that the large turnout was unprecedented.
Sixteen candidates ran for president and some of them have already conceded defeat and congratulated Hichilema on victory, citing results posted at polling centers where votes were counted.
Hichilema’s party has claimed victory based on the results displayed at polling centers. However, Lungu’s Patriotic Front claimed that the incumbent would win.
Votes in Zambia are counted at polling centers and then posted for the public to see. The results from the polling stations are sent to the national election center in the capital, Lusaka, where the final results are announced.
Zambia’s military was on the streets of Lusaka and other parts of the country Saturday. The president deployed the military ahead of the election saying it was to curb some outbreaks of violence. Lungu ordered more troops to be deployed in some restive parts of the country after there were two killings on election day.
The opposition alleges the troop rollout is an intimidation tactic by Lungu.
Arriving in trucks, cars and on foot, jubilant Hichilema supporters sang and danced at his party’s headquarters in Lusaka.
There was a brief tense moment when two truckloads of government troops arrived. A few soldiers disembarked and chatted with leaders of the opposition supporters. Cheers followed as the soldiers returned into their trucks and eventually left.
Many of the opposition supporters, referring to Hichilema by his initials HH, said they are looking forward his presidency and have little patience to wait for the official results.
“HH has to fulfill his promises, especially for the youths who have been struggling with no jobs,” said 29-year old Mwinga Haajanzi, who said he is an unemployed Hichilema supporter.
“Nurses, teachers have to be paid well. There should be jobs for us,” said Haajanzi. “He should know that leadership is not about arresting or intimidating people, it is about using our copper and other resources to uplift the people’s lives.”
Others opposition supporters were seen pulling down Lungu’s posters that are plastered all over the capital.
Zambia’s newspapers showed the divide between the opposition and Lungu.
“HH gets it” and “HH takes lead” trumpeted the banner headlines of two privately owned newspapers.
In contrast, the state-run Zambia Daily Mail ran with the headline “Lungu set for victory-PF,” citing an official of the ruling Patriotic Front party.
Lungu won power in 2015 in a snap election after the previous president, Michael Sata, died in office. Lungu narrowly defeated Hichilema, whom he again beat with a small margin for a full term in 2016. Hichilema alleged fraud in both polls and has warned of rigging in these elections.
Critics accuse Lungu of trying to reverse Zambia’s record of holding regular, credible elections and peaceful transfers of power since 1991 when the country returned to multi-party democracy after being a one-party state for more than two decades.
Lungu’s party on Friday said it had written to the electoral commission, also alleging the election wasn’t free and fair, citing alleged violence by the opposition.
Both Lungu and Hichilema have expressed concern that the election could result in post-election instability.