President Edgar Lungu can stand in presidential elections due in 2021 without breaching a constitutional two-term limit, Zambia’s top court ruled, rejecting an opposition challenge.
The ruling will strengthen Lungu’s hand at a time when Zambia, Africa’s second largest copper producer, is grappling with mounting debt and an economic slump caused by depressed commodity prices.
Lungu’s first period in office lasted a year and six months, when he took over after the death of previous president, Michael Sata. He then won election in a disputed vote to a second, full term in August 2016.
Lungu supporters argue the constitution says a president is only deemed to have served a term if he is in office for at least three years of a five-year term.
Constitutional Court President Hildah Chibomba said the ruling by the seven judges of the court was unanimous.
“Our answer is Lungu’s first presidential tenure of office cannot be considered as a full term,” Chibomba said.
Opposition leader Hakainde Hichelema, who heads the United Party for National Development (UPND), criticised the ruling as opening the way to a third term for Lungu.
“For now, we would state no one is entitled to a third term of office as president of this country,” Hichelema said. “This is because when courts fail to protect citizens, they have the power to map their own destiny through people power.”
Elias Chipimo, who heads the smaller National Restoration Party, said on Twitter: “The Constitutional Court may just have done more to undermine confidence in our judiciary than at any other time in our history.”
The opposition cannot appeal the ruling as the Constitutional Court is the highest tribunal in Zambia.
Lungu told supporters in November Zambian judges could plunge the country into chaos if they made “adventurous” rulings, according to the Zambia Daily Mail and Times of Zambia.
A string of African leaders in countries including Rwanda, Uganda and Cameroon extended presidential term limits or amended constitutions in order to remain in power.
Lungu said Zambia is committed to improving transparency of its debt management and will ensure debt levels remain sustainable.
The International Monetary Fund rejected Zambia’s borrowing plans earlier this year and said the southern African country was at high risk of debt distress, unnerving investors holding Zambian debt.