In the latest in our popular #BookClub feature, Tinenenji Banda, Marja Hinfelaar, O’Brien Kaaba and Muna Ndulo use their important new book Democracy and Electoral Politics in Zambia to reflect on the challenges facing Zambian democracy today. To see all of our #BookClub blogs, click here.
While elections have been central to understanding Zambian politics over the last decade, the coverage they have received in the academic literature has been sparse. Since the re-introduction of multiparty politics in the early 1990s, and despite the intense political competition of the last decade, not a single monograph has brought together scholars from diverse disciplines to examine the varied aspects of democracy and political life in Zambia. Frustratingly, civil society actors, international development partners, policy makers as well as the general readership of Zambian political change have had to contend with the inaccessibility and, where available, segmented nature of such efforts, and the lack of interdisciplinarity within them.
This new volume on Zambia’s democracy aims to fill that gap and gives a holistic account of contemporary Zambian election dynamics. Published by Brill (Amsterdam & Boston), Democracy and Electoral Politics in Zambia brings together established and emerging researchers of Zambian politics from a variety of disciplines including history, political science, law, media studies, sociology, and peace and conflict studies. The result is an analysis of the current dynamics of Zambia’s democracy that provides significant insights into our understanding of political parties, mobilisation methods, civil society, the motivations behind voters’ choices, the role of violence, money and election observers in elections, the importance of party funding, and the adjudication of electoral disputes by the judiciary. This book should be of interest to those with a penchant for the study of civil society, political parties, electoral institutions, voters, the judiciary, and even social media. Drawing on insights, interviews, public opinion data and innovative surveys, the book aims to tell a rich and nuanced story about Zambia’s recent electoral history from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.
What is particularly timely about the new book is that it emerges at a time when the country’s democracy is backsliding. Arguably, Zambia was never truly a liberal democracy. The transition from a one-party state into a multi-party democracy in 1991 failed to deliver substantial constitutional reforms. It did not challenge or alter executive power, commonly used as an instrument for the exclusion of political opponents and to reward supporters through patronage. The president remains the key decision-maker and exercises power and influence over key institutions in the country, including the legislature and judiciary. Crucially, there remains no effective check on the actions or powers of the president, usually resulting in a lack of transparency and accountability. This has also meant that the state of Zambia’s governance is often a reflection of the personality and leadership style of the sitting president.
This idiosyncrasy helps to explain Zambia’s undulating political trajectory-neither linear from autocracy to democracy, nor an out-ride slide into brute authoritarianism. Indeed, Zambia has generally been perceived to be peaceful and stable and has tended to attract little attention in international academia and media in comparison to, say, Zimbabwe, a neighbour to the south. As a result, very few people might be aware of the democratic backsliding that has occurred over the last decade. The reality however is that Zambia has witnessed increased authoritarianism and the democratic space for opposition parties, civil society and the media has shrunk. While the 2011 elections were regarded as a moment of democratic consolidation, signs of intolerance of opposition leaders and the lack of a level playing field were already visible. The heightened tensions surrounding the 2015 and 2016 elections and the aftermath (the election petitions, the violence) encouraged us and our contributing authors to document these developments and incorporate some practical suggestions ahead of the 2021 elections.
The argument by Lindberg and others, for instance, that elections drive democratic consolidation comes to bear in this book, as it reveals the institutions and actors whose efficacy is tied to elections, but also how these same institutions and actors can undermine democracy in the manner in which we are witnessing now. We have brought these chapters together to outline the key drivers of contemporary democratic deficits and to give a holistic account of Zambia’s recent electoral history. We hope that this book will assist in the identification of some of the shortcomings of the country’s democracy-sustaining institutions, which operate before, during and after elections. We also hope it provides a better understanding of the underlying risks to the legitimacy of the forthcoming elections in Zambia, as well as some insight into how these risks can be ameliorated.
Tinenenji Banda (PhD,Cornell University) is a faculty member of the University of Zambia
and a Research Fellow at the Southern African Institute of Policy and Research (SAIPAR)