LUSAKA, Zambia (AP) — Zambia’s veteran opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema has won the southern African country’s presidency with more than 50% of the vote.
Hichilema was declared president–elect early Monday after getting more than 2.8 million votes to President Edgar Lungu’s 1.8 million votes, achieving one of the biggest electoral wins in Zambia’s history.
President Edgar Lungu, 64, accepted defeat and said he would work for a “peaceful transfer of power.”
Hichilema welcomed Lungu’s concession but described the outgoing government as a “brutal regime.” Hichilema had been arrested multiple times and spent some time in jail on treason charges under Lungu’s government, but he said he would not seek vengeance or retribution.
Preaching unity in Zambia, a country of 18 million people with several political and ethnic divisions, Hichilema urged an end to all political violence in which several people died in the run-up to the elections.
“It is indeed a new day. Change is here,” said Hichilema on Monday. “Let’s put the past behind us. We are not going into office to arrest those who arrested us … to replace those that have been very violent against our people only to start a new wave of violence.”
Hichilema, a 59-year old businessman contesting the presidency for the sixth time, promised democratic reforms, investor-friendly economic policies, better debt management as well as “zero tolerance” to corruption.
Hichilema garnered more than half of the nearly 5 million votes cast to win the presidency outright, without having to go to a runoff election. About 80% of the country’s registered voters cast their ballots.
Hichilema will become Zambia’s seventh president since the reintroduction of multi-party democracy in 1991 by founding president, the late Kenneth Kaunda, who had ruled the country as a one-party state for more than two decades.
Hichilema narrowly lost two previous elections to Lungu in 2015 and 2016. His support grew in each of those polls and in 2016 he lost by just 100,000 votes.
Hichilema and Lungu met later Monday, a sign of the start of a smooth transition. In pictures posted on Lungu’s Twitter page, both men smiled as they showed their parties’ political hand symbols. Also in the photos were Jakaya Kikwete, the former president of Tanzania who was the head of the Commonwealth’s observer mission, and Ernest Bai Koroma, the former president of Sierra Leone who was the head of the African Union’s observer mission.
Zambians celebrated overnight, with hundreds of Hichilema’s frenzied supporters turning his home on the outskirts of the capital, Lusaka, into a party zone.
Hichilema has his work cut out for him, as his supporters are looking to him to increase employment and cut out corruption. “We will fix this!” was one of his popular campaign slogans.
Zambia recorded economic progress for more than a decade and achieved middle-income status in 2011, but now the country is beset by high inflation, high debt and allegations of corruption.
The COVID-19 pandemic hurt the already stuttering economy even further. Lockdown measures pushed Zambia into its first recession since 1998 and the economy contracted by 1.2%, according to the World Bank.
An easing of the lockdown measures in the latter part of 2020 and the global rise in copper prices resulted in some recovery, although inflation reached a high of 22% in February this year, according to the World Bank.
Hichilema’s supporters celebrated on Lusaka’s streets and at Hichilema’s residence where hundreds cheered as police began guarding the home. Some of Zambia’s service chiefs also visited the residence, signaling a transition in progress.
“For once I don’t have to run away from the police or soldiers. Things have indeed changed,” said a supporter, Salma Mwewa.
“We have been waiting for this for too long. There are many problems in Zambia so we will be patient with HH but we expect to see some change,” said Stali Boma, wearing red overalls featuring a portrait of Hichilema. “If he fails after 5 years, we boot him out. He will join Lungu in retirement.”
Analysts hailed the results as good news.
“It’s a tremendous milestone toward democratic consolidation in Zambia,” Adriano Nuvunga, professor of politics at Mozambique’s Eduardo Mondlane University, told The Associated Press.
“People turned out to vote in large numbers … They were eager for change,” said Nuvunga, in Zambia to monitor the elections.
He said Hichilema’s victory and Lungu’s agreement to step down is “significant for the continent where leaders do everything in their power to stay in office. … The fact that an opposition candidate can win an election is consistent with democratic principles but it is rare in Africa. I hope we can see it happen in more African countries.”