So I had the exciting opportunity to experience not only the Zambian elections, but also the US elections while traveling in Zambia.
The Zambian elections were quite interesting to observe on the ground. Depending on who you talked to, opinions ranged wildly from “PF (the opposition party) and Michael Sata (its leader) have no chance, the election will be rigged by MMD (the ruling party)” to “the elections are totally free and fair”. As the results came in it was very fun to track the polls from various locations. Even more so than the US, politics are deeply regionalized, with PF controlling the urban areas and North of the country, MMD dominant in the rural east and west, and third opposition party UPND dominant in the south (taking 80% of the vote in some constituencies to PF’s 1%). Seriously, look at this election map for a while, it’s fascinating. What is frustrating for PF and Sata supporters is that the urban results always come in first – so it looks like they’re dominating, only to have their numbers drop like crazy once the rural votes come in (only increasing the allegations of foul play).
The expectations for the post-election reaction were also interesting and varied. In my very first cab ride after I landed the driver told me “if MMD wins there will be war in this country”. Yikes. But then I got some second opinions. “If it was football I might be worried,” said a colleague (referring to the riots when the Zambian soccer team played in the Africa cup), “but democracy works in Zambia.”
Still some of the ex-pats weren’t so sure. I even heard about an “all-night election party” where people brought plenty of food, alcohol, and sleeping bags, on the off-chance the city exploded in riots and they were unable to leave the house. Still despite the expectations things were for the most part, quiet and smooth. I was at a club, surrounded by Zambians, when the last round of polls came out and sealed the victory for MMD; and while there clear disappointment among some, violence was never an option.
The US election on the heels of Zambia’s was an amazing thing to experience here. Everyone I talked to was thrilled. “We may have lost our election, but we won in the US!” was a common theme. OBAMA WINS! Made the bold headline in the (next) morning’s paper. And overnight it seemed, people were much warmer toward me as an American.
Much has been written about the international reaction to our elections and I don’t want to belabor the point. However one thing that was interesting in Zambia’s context on the heels of a national election, was how interested people were with our process. I had this conversation several times:
“So voting is today, when will you know the results?”
“Tonight?! Man, we need that system in Africa.” (Zambia voted on Thursday and results were final Saturday night – quite a quick turnaround time for the region)
Everybody was also surprised how quickly McCain conceded the result. The most common sentiment being “only in America. This would not happen in Africa.”
So what does happen in Africa?
Well Sata first alleged corruption and fraud, then demanded a recount (a fair and level response, see also: Gore, Al; Diebold). However, before the recounting process had even began, Sata got heated and (allegedly) punched some of MMD members participating in the ballot verification. Now counts have been suspended indefinitely.
Kind of makes the post-election McCain camp’s internal fighting seem a bit mild, doesn’t it?