/ 5 November 2008

Lost opportunity for Zambian democracy

Recent elections to replace deceased Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa provided an interesting case of the workings of democracy.

Recent elections to replace deceased Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa provided an interesting case of the workings of democracy.

Rupiah Banda, the candidate of the ruling party (the Movement for Multiparty Democracy), won by a narrow margin over the Patriotic Front’s (PF) Michael Sata. Concerns expressed by numerous stakeholders hint at serious irregularities in the electoral process.

The allegations include, amongst others, suspicious voter registration practices, lack of independence of both the ECZ (Electoral Commission of Zambia) and the state media, as well as outright rigging of results from remote rural areas. Many of these issues were raised during the previous presidential and parliamentary elections in 2006.

Surprisingly enough, the SADC mission declared the elections “free and fair” on Saturday November 1. The polls were declared closed on the evening of Thursday October 30. ECZ only announced the final results at lunchtime on Sunday November 2. This left many people with a burning question: How could the regional observers provide a final assessment before the end of the counting process?

This should have been a relatively straightforward counting exercise as there were only four candidates for one post in a single election. After a long silence, on the morning of Sunday November 2, Florence Mumba (chairperson of ECZ) released an official statement providing some reasons for the enormous delays.

According to this statement, delays were caused by the infrastructural difficulties encountered in the rural areas. In a clear irregularity, voting in four remote rural areas only took place on Friday and Saturday, days after the election closed. It is hard to believe that the ECZ had no knowledge of these facts before Sunday morning. Why did they not release a statement before? Can the technicalities of conducting elections in rural areas with major infrastructural problems fully explain all the delays?

There is no substantial evidence to prove that rigging actually took place. All the international media could do was to report some of the allegations of the runner-up, Sata. But what did Sata and PF really say? How did they behave in the midst of all this?

PF behaviour was exemplified by a press conference led by Given Lubinda, PF spokesperson, on Saturday November 1. At the end of the read statement, a reporter asked what the sources were for the data mentioned to support allegations of rigging. Lubinda did not answer the question, saying that if the main opposition party disputes the results, then these elections cannot be regular, regardless of the opinion of international observers.

Firstly, Lubinda’s answer further shows how PF allegations are not supported by concrete evidence. Secondly, PF is using the wrong argument. The conduct of a general election in a multiparty democracy is not determined by the degree of acceptance of the results by its contestants. It is determined by the adherence to basic principles, outlined in advance and received by the law. If there is substantial reason to doubt that those principles have been strictly adhered to, then the elections cannot be said to be free and fair. Veiled threats of “taking it to the streets”, colourful rhetoric and outraged statements are not enough to prove that the presidential elections in Zambia have not been free and fair.

Let’s assume for a moment that the elections were rigged by the MMD to favour Banda. Sata, then, had an easy way out to win the elections. He should have built a task force of trained volunteers to monitor the electoral process in all polling stations nationwide, reaching throughout all rural areas.

The next runner-up against the MMD candidate should build a credible alternative transmission network of results coming directly from party agents at polling stations to avoid the disputes that have seriously marred previous elections.

He should also organise enough volunteers to monitor the transport of sealed ballot boxes when counting is not done on the premises. The volunteers should report any witnessed irregularity with specific accounts of the problems encountered. The vulnerabilities of the ECZ would then be uncovered.

If the results of the ECZ do not match those of the opposition electoral agents, it would be very hard for the authorities not to intervene. International observers would also be forced to acknowledge the irregularities reported. The opposition contestant should also commit to make this process into a state-funded operation once in power. The state should provide funds for all contestants to have their own electoral agents in all polling stations. This would substantially reduce the possibility of the party in power abusing state institutions.

Similar concerns also apply to other African democracies, especially the thorny issue of fair process in the rural areas. Opposition parties throughout the continent that are truly committed to free and fair elections should not be afraid to experiment alongside these lines.

Vito Laterza is a PhD researcher in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge (UK). He is currently conducting field research in Swaziland and his interests include labour relations, rural-urban migration, democratisation and development in the Southern African region.