Zambian President Edgar Lungu conceded defeat on Monday after a landslide election win by opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, marking the southern African country’s third peaceful handover of power to an opposition party.
With all but one of 156 constituencies counted, Hichilema had won 2.8 million votes against Lungu’s 1.8 million, and the electoral commission declared him the next president.
“I will comply with the constitutional provisions for a peaceful transition of power. I would therefore like to congratulate my brother, the president-elect, His Excellency Mr Hakainde Hichilema,” Lungu, 64, said in a short televised address to the nation.
Power has switched from a ruling party to the opposition twice before since independence from Britain in 1964. The latest shift strengthens Zambia’s democratic credentials and sets an example on a continent with a patchy history of peaceful change.
Lungu had cried foul on Saturday, calling the election “not free and fair” after violence against ruling Patriotic Front party agents in three provinces, but the size of the margin would have made it near-impossible to challenge the result in court.
Wearing the red and yellow of Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND) Hichilema’s supporters celebrated, dancing and singing, while drivers honked their horns.
“This victory is so sweet,” 37-year-old Jane Phiri said, next to her market stall, adding that she hoped Lungu supporters would now cease extorting informal levies from her.
“This spirit of change was bottled up for a long time,” she said.
When celebrations die down, Hichilema, 59, a former CEO at an accounting firm before entering politics, faces the task of reviving an economy in turmoil. Zambia became Africa’s first pandemic-era sovereign default in November after failing to keep up with its international debt payments.
The default was driven by depressed commodity prices – which had pushed Zambia into recession well before the pandemic – worsened by the pandemic itself.
Zambia’s sovereign dollar bonds jumped nearly two cents on Monday after the news of Hichilema’s win. Zambia’s kwacha currency strengthened nearly 1% against the dollar.
The economy has been buoyed slightly by more favourable copper prices this year – now hovering around decade highs, driven partly by the boom in electric cars. Last year, Zambia, Africa’s second biggest copper miner, produced a record output of the metal.
International Monetary Fund support is on hold until after the vote, as is debt restructuring – seen as an early test for a new global plan aimed at easing poor countries’ burdens.
The election is the culmination of an acrimonious rivalry between the two that in 2017 led Lungu to arrest and imprison Hichilema for refusing to make way for his motorcade. This is Hichilema’s sixth attempt at the presidency since 2006.