Zambia’s democracy survives crucial test
Zambia held a competitive election that led to a peaceful transfer of power, despite the incumbent president doing much to try to skew the result and initially claiming fraud. The vote pointed to a popular desire for change, including action on economic downturn, youth unemployment and corruption. Zambia’s passing of this electoral test underlined the robustness of the country’s civil society and its role in defending democracy, even though civil society has experienced a sustained crackdown in recent years. The new president should end the crackdown, work with civil society and show he is more open to scrutiny and criticism than his predecessor.
Ahead of Zambia’s August general election, civil society feared the worse. Voting took place amid a worsening crackdown on civic freedoms, intensifying political violence and polarisation fuelled by the ruling party. Election day saw a social media shutdown and the army deployed on the streets.
Despite sustained attempts to skew the vote in his favour, shortly after the polls had closed incumbent President Edgar Lungu attempted to disregard the results, outrageously claiming that the process had not been free and fair – to him. But the count soon made clear that President Lungu had been heavily defeated. He received only around 38 per cent of the vote compared to challenger Hakainda Hichilema’s 59 per cent. The size of the margin made it impossible for Lungu to sustain a credible allegation of fraud, and his concession duly followed. Zambia stepped back from the brink, and an orderly transfer of power began.
Contrary to Lungu’s spurious fraud claims, European Union election observers concluded that the electoral process was marred by abuse of incumbency and unequal conditions for campaigning, with unevenly enforced restrictions on the freedoms of movement and assembly hindering Hichilema’s campaign. The ruling party essentially had full freedom to campaign, with political rallies masquerading as essential government activities, while the opposition was blocked from holding gatherings under pandemic rules. Independent media were increasingly restricted while state-controlled media boosted the ruling party. An African Union election observation team, while broadly taking a more positive view of the conduct of the election, also noted concerns about the use of the Public Order Act and COVID-19 controls on opposition party activity, along with media polarisation and politically motivated violence during the campaign.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
McDonald Chipenzi is Executive Director of the Governance, Elections, Advocacy, Research Services (GEARS) Initiative and Chair of the NGO Council in Zambia. Just ahead of the election he spoke to us about some of the challenges:
The civic and media space in Zambia remains fragile and has been shrinking due to legal restrictions. This has been compounded by the outbreak of the pandemic and newly crafted rules and guidelines that have heightened restrictions on citizens’ freedom of movement and freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. This has led to ineffective citizens’ participation in national affairs.
The media space remains intimidated, harassed and cowed as a result of restrictive laws and the actions of ruling elites. The closure of Prime TV, a private television station, in March sent a chilling wave through the media community.
A concern is the pandemic, which was seen to have the potential to be spread by political parties had they held rallies. According to the Ministry of Health and the Electoral Commission of Zambia, rallies were seen as potential superspreading events for COVID-19, and therefore they recommended a ban. This mostly affected the opposition while ruling party officials were busy campaigning in the name of launching and inspecting developmental projects.
The state of the Zambian economy is not pleasing but biting to many ordinary people. The local currency, the kwacha, has continued to depreciate against major convertible currencies. The cost of living has quadrupled, and the cost of essential commodities is skyrocketing. The poor are barely managing to live while the ruling political elites are sleeping on top of money due to excessive corruption and abuse of state resources in the absence of controls and accountability. The poor eat in order to live rather than live in order to eat.
This is an edited extract of our interview with McDonald Chipenzi. Read the full interview here.
An evident demand for change
The election results signal a clear desire for change. Turnout was the highest since Zambia’s return to multi-party democracy in 1991: it stood at around 71 per cent, compared to 2016’s 56 per cent. There was heavy participation by young people: some four million people aged 18 to 24 were reported as having registered to vote. If the incumbent government tried to stop the election being a meaningful expression of democratic will, evidently the people of Zambia, and the civil society that worked hard to defend democracy, had other ideas.
Zambia’s democracy has survived a scare, and now there should follow efforts to nurture the institutions and freedoms that can help make the next election less polarised and divisive. The new president will need to restore the rights that have been reversed, including by respecting civil society and media freedoms. He will also need to respond to recent political violence: the need is not to settle scores in a country that has become increasingly polarised, but to investigate violations and hold those responsible to account.
President Hichilema would do well to consider the possibility that at least some of this support was likely a protest vote against his predecessor rather than an unconditional endorsement of his policies. One of the possible reasons for his landslide victory – the dismal economic performance of the previous administration – could now become a formidable obstacle to his own success. Last November, Zambia became the first African country to default on debt repayments during the pandemic.
Alongside restoring civic freedoms, the new president will need to address high youth unemployment, inflation and public debt. He will need to offer alternatives to the big infrastructure projects – which enabled high-scale corruption – favoured by the outgoing regime that left people feeling no better off.
This is a big agenda. The fact that civil society action was crucial in resisting Lungu’s attacks on democracy and pushing back against corruption, often at considerable risk, makes civil society an obvious partner to help achieve the changes that so many people clearly want to see. The new president should commit to enabling and working with civil society – and should signal that he is different from his predecessor by welcoming it in all of its roles, including the vital activity of scrutinising President Hichilema’s decisions and holding him to account on his promises.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
President Hichilema should immediately lift all restrictions on civil society imposed by his predecessor.
The government should reverse bans on private media outlets, including Prime TV, and commit to respecting media and online freedoms.
The government should undertake consultations with a broad range of civil society to help shape public policy.