Zambia restricted access to WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media platforms, while voters in record numbers waited for as long as 10 hours to cast ballots in a tense presidential race.
Queues in parts of the capital, Lusaka, extended for hundreds of meters (yards). That could suggest the turnout in Thursday’s general election could be the highest since the 1991 ballot that marked the return to multi-party democracy in Africa’s second-biggest copper producer, according to University of Zambia History Professor Bizeck Phiri.
“The numbers are very overwhelming,” he said by phone. “It’s unprecedented in the history of voting in Zambia.”
The high turnout of largely younger voters may not be good news for President Edgar Lungu’s hopes for a third consecutive victory, according to Phiri, particularly as the moribund economy with surging inflation and youth unemployment have become central to the election.
Voting stations were due to close at 6 p.m. and early results may start coming through on Friday, along with indications of official turnout numbers. The result is expected within three days.
Social media platforms and messaging apps were restricted on multiple internet providers, according to NetBlocks, a London-based monitoring agency. Information Permanent Secretary Amos Malupenga didn’t answer four calls to his mobile phone seeking comment.
Mukuka Nalwamba, 30, arrived at the Arthur Wina Primary School in the southeast of Lusaka before 4 a.m. and was yet to cast her vote by early afternoon. Some in the queue behind her brought stools to sit on.
Advocacy groups questioned the fairness of campaigns in the run-up to the vote.
While main opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema’s movements were curbed, 64-year-old Lungu dominated state media coverage and his party stands accused of using coronavirus restrictions to its advantage.
“The playing field certainly hasn’t been level,” said Linda Kasonde, executive director of the Chapter One Foundation, a local civil rights organization. “Opposition leaders have been attacked by ruling party cadres and prevented from appearing on private and community radio stations.”
Investors are keenly awaiting the outcome of the ballot. Whoever wins will need to revive an economy in default on its Eurobonds and secure a long sought-after bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund.
With the economy the biggest issue in the election, it provides United Party for National Development leader Hichilema — a 59-year-old businessman who’s unsuccessfully run for president five times — his best chance of victory.
The ruling party denied electoral-campaign rules had been unfair.
Restrictions on movement to help contain the spread of Covid-19 were applied equally to all parties, Amos Chanda, a ruling Patriotic Front spokesman, said by phone on Wednesday. The public broadcaster is mandated to cover Lungu’s announcements as president, he said.