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In the final days of their election campaign, Zambians have been startled by a menacing sight in the streets: military combat vehicles, packed with armed soldiers in camouflage uniforms.

The Zambian government says it is merely a precaution to prevent violence in Thursday’s vote. Opposition supporters and independent analysts have called it a blatant attempt to intimidate the opposition – and they have noted that it is the first such military deployment in an election in Zambia since its independence in 1964.

For many years, Zambia was a model African democracy, known for its fair votes, peaceful transfers of power between ruling parties and opposition parties, and a fearless electoral commission that did not hesitate to accept opposition victories.

But its government has increasingly opted for authoritarian tactics in recent years. A study last year by the Varieties of Democracy Institute, based at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, concluded that Zambia was one of the world’s fastest eroding democracies.

Thursday’s election is seen as a crucial test for Zambia’s increasingly fragile democracy. Among those watching most closely will be the Canadian mining industry – which has invested billions of dollars in Zambia – and the Canadian government, which provides millions of dollars in aid.

Opinion polls suggest a tight race between the ruling Patriotic Front, headed by President Edgar Lungu, and the main opposition party, the United Party for National Development, headed by businessman Hakainde Hichilema. In the past election, five years ago, Mr. Lungu narrowly defeated Mr. Hichilema by 50 per cent to 48 per cent, although the opposition said the vote was rigged.

In a closely fought contest, the government’s use of its security forces – not just the military, but also the police – could spell the difference. While Mr. Lungu has used government aircraft to campaign freely across the country, the police have blocked Mr. Hichilema from entering some districts and have used rubber bullets and tear gas against his supporters.

“They shoot at us, they block our movements, and they spray us with tear gas, but we keep moving,” Mr. Hichilema said in a tweet on Saturday.

Mr. Hichilema, who has run for president six times, has been arrested or detained on 15 separate occasions – most recently in December. He was imprisoned for more than four months on a treason charge in 2017 after his convoy failed to make way for Mr. Lungu’s motorcade.

With the Zambian economy deteriorating and poverty increasing, an opinion poll of 1,200 Zambians last December found that only 23 per cent would vote for Mr. Lungu’s ruling party, while 25 per cent would vote for the main opposition party.

The poll also found that 59 per cent were dissatisfied with the state of democracy in Zambia, and 77 per cent were unhappy with the country’s direction. But 38 per cent were unwilling to express any voting preference – a sign of the fear and intimidation that many voters feel.

“In a free and fair election, Lungu cannot win,” said Sishuwa Sishuwa, a Zambian historian and political analyst, in a commentary published on Sunday.

Mr. Sishuwa himself has faced intimidation tactics from the government. When he wrote an article in March that criticized the government’s authoritarian tendencies, a Zambian diplomat asked a top police commander to investigate him for sedition – a charge that carries a minimum seven-year jail sentence. No charges have been laid.

By deploying the military in the final days of the campaign, Mr. Lungu “seeks to intimidate voters into staying away from the polls, facilitate ballot stuffing and dubious vote tabulation, and suppress potential protests,” Mr. Sishuwa said in his commentary on Sunday.

International observers, too, are watching the military deployment with disquiet. The deployment shows that democracy in Zambia “remains under threat,” said U.S. Senator Jim Risch, a senior member of the Senate foreign relations committee.

“The government has actively repressed opposition, undermined the electoral process and mismanaged the economy,” he said in a tweet.

Nic Cheeseman, a University of Birmingham professor who specializes in African democracy, said the military deployment could be a deliberate tactic to reduce the opposition vote and prevent any postelection protests. He noted that the authoritarian governments of Uganda and Tanzania recently made heavy use of security forces to shut down opposition protests against flawed elections.

There are also concerns about government manipulation of a new voter registration list, including reports that voters have been under-registered in opposition strongholds. And a new system of biometric voter identification has been introduced for some voting stations, provoking fears that authorities could use the system to delay or deter voting in opposition areas.

Political analysts have warned of the danger of political violence if the election is perceived as fraudulent. “Undoubtedly, the prospects of violence are greatest if the government seeks to overturn a clear opposition win,” said Jeffrey Smith, head of Vanguard Africa, a democracy advocacy group.

Zambia’s election has broad significance for Africa and the world, he said in a published commentary. “Perhaps no other country – and no other upcoming election – better encapsulates the increasingly pitched global struggle of our day in which the forces of elite authoritarianism and popular demands for democracy are clashing.”

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