Social media curbs as Zambia votes in hard-fought polls

Zambians voting

Zambians voting in a general election on August 12, 2021 as the internet saw partial restrictions.

Photo credit: Patrick Meinhardt | AFP

Lusaka

Zambians flocked to vote for a president Thursday in tightly contested polls pitting incumbent Edgar Lungu and his long-time rival Hakainde Hichilema, as the internet saw partial restrictions.

After 12 hours of voting, polling stations started closing at 6pm (1600 GMT) with several hundred still in queues waiting to cast ballots.

The closely fought presidential election is seen as a test of the country's democratic credentials after a campaign dominated by economic woes and a debt crisis.

Sixteen candidates were vying for the top job, but the frontrunners are Lungu, 64, and business tycoon Hichilema, who are facing off at the polls for the third time.

It is Hichilema'a sixth attempt for the presidency.

"We are confident that we will carry the day," he said after voting at a secondary school in a leafy suburb of Lusaka. "People want change -- you can see it in their faces," he told reporters as supporters crowding around him chanted "Bally! Bally!"

Determined by voters

Addressing opposition fears of fraud, Hichilema said Zambia's next leader "must be determined by the... voters, not the people who count the votes".

But by afternoon the internet was partially shut down, with global observatory NetBlocks confirming that "social media and messaging platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Messenger are now restricted."

Student Edward Musayani, 26, who had been queueing for four hours to vote, said he checked his phone in the early afternoon and found that WhatsApp and Facebook had been switched off.

"That's quite unfortunate in a democratic dispensation like ours... People should have access to information to make informed decisions," he said while waiting to vote in the Chawama township.

"You are shutting down the voice of people and this will impact the election, how people view the election... People will be asking why," he said.

Cut off internet

The government had threatened to cut off internet access if people peddled "falsehoods that could destabilise" the election.

Lungu exuded confidence that he would retain the job he has held for the past six years in the copper-rich southern African country.

"We are winning, otherwise I wouldn't have been in the race if we were not winning," Lungu said earlier Thursday after he cast his ballot at a nursery school in Chawama.

Rising living costs

The vote "is a test of democracy in Zambia, it is a test ultimately of how fair and freely" the electoral commission will run it, said political economist Trevor Simumba, adding that the "real test will be in the counting process."

A flagging economy and rising living costs have eroded the incumbent's support base in recent years, surveys suggest.

Lungu is accused of borrowing unsustainably, particularly from Chinese creditors, to finance a spree of infrastructure projects.

Under him, Zambia became the first African country to default on its sovereign debt since the coronavirus pandemic began, while inflation soared to 24.6 percent in June, the highest rate in more than a decade.

Winding queues of hundreds of people formed before dawn outside polling stations hours before voting was to open.

The atmosphere was generally relaxed during voting.

Queued for seven hours

Copper miner Thomas Wandu, 41, had been queueing for seven hours to vote for Lungu.

"Underground, things are not how they are supposed to be," he said, referring to what he described as low and delayed wages from his Chinese employers.

Zambia is the second biggest producer of copper in Africa after the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the world's eighth producer.

Lungu's critics point to poverty and joblessness in the midst of glittering infrastructure.

Lungu and Hichilema supporters clashed in the runup to voting, prompting Lungu to order an unprecedented deployment of the army.

Around seven million citizens were eligible to vote for a president, legislators and local government representatives.

The winning candidate must acquire more than 50 per cent of votes to avoid a second-round runoff.

UN chief Antonio Guterres is "closely" following the vote and called for the creation of "an environment conducive to credible, inclusive and peaceful elections", his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Official results are expected by Sunday.

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