Supporters of defeated presidential candidate Hakainde Hichilema of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) have to swallow another election setback.
Hichilema lost the election on August 11 by some 100,000 votes, then claimed that the result was rigged and launched a legal bid to stop Patriotic Front (PF) rival Edgar Lungu from retaining power. On Monday, September 5, the Constitutional Court ruled that the UPND’s challenge to the result had been dismissed, before the hearing had even begun.
The stunning reversal came after days of indecision and conflicting reports from the court, and its indecisiveness has once again racked up political tensions in the country.
The series of on-off-on-again developments began last Friday, September 2, when the court gave Hichilema just two hours to make his case, prompting his lawyers to quit.
Then on Saturday, September 3, the court ruled that the opposition leader should seek legal representation so that the matter could continue on Monday, September 5. “This matter has to be heard and each party will have two days and the respondents will also have two days," Constitutional Court President Hildah Chibomba told local media. But come Monday morning and the court changed its mind again, stating that the petition had failed because it had missed a 14-day deadline that expired at midnight on Friday, September 2.
“There is no petition to be heard before this court," said Judge Annie Sitali, formally ruling that the deadline had expired. “Where the time for hearing a petition is limited, the court is bound,” she continued. “Our position therefore is the petition stands dismissed for want of prosecution as at midnight” on September 2.
In light of the Constitutional Court decision – no further appeals are allowed – Lungu will be inaugurated on September 13, according to government officials.
The Constitutional Court decision, while following the letter of the law, clearly did not follow the spirit.
It did not make provision for the legal challenge to Lungu’s election victory to be resolved once and for all. The decision leaves uncertainly over the Lungu win and will damage the president’s credibility over time, whereas allowing the petition to proceed would have cleared up the issue (most probably in Mr Lungu’s favour).
That might not have best pleased Hichilema’s supporters either, but at least there would have been a due process to point to and an acceptance of such due process.
Now there is nothing more than a lingering doubt. Once again the opposition supporters will be asked to exercise restraint and patience – a call we expect them largely to heed despite their understandable frustration and disappointment.