Zambians return to the polls in August 2021. As momentum is building, it brings with it fresh memories of some of the disturbing events of the 2016 general elections that gave President Lungu a second term in office. Although Zambia is known to have had relatively peaceful elections in the past, the 2016 general elections had irregularities many Zambians would not want to see repeated in 2021.
Political violence characterized the 2016 elections with a number of physical confrontations, especially between supporters of the two main political parties, the United Party for National Development (UPND) and the ruling Patriotic Front (PF). The PF extensively applied the colonial Public Order Act to selectively bar the opposition from campaigning freely. Election results were later disputed on grounds that the election was marred with irregularities. Riots broke out in opposition strongholds after election results were announced. More than 300 people were arrested. Mr. Hichilema, who was the losing candidate, petitioned the elections in the country’s constitutional court, but the petition was not heard due to a technicality.
Press freedoms also deteriorated significantly during the 2016 election. The Post, a private media institution whose newspaper tabloid at the time was the most critical of the ruling party was shutdown. Although its closure was attributed to the institutions failure to meet tax obligations, the timing told a different story-that of a calculated move to curtail the flow of impartial information at a time when it was needed the most. Other media institutions closed during the post-election violence period included Muvi TV, Komboni Radio, and Itezhi Tezhi Radio whose licences were revoked by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) for acting in a manner that posed a risk to national peace and security.
As 2021 approaches signs are clear that events of 2016, if not worse, are sadly likely to be repeated. The Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) started by hiking candidate nomination fees by 150% compared to 2016.Various stakeholders rejected this increase, fearing it would prohibit aspiring candidates from contesting. It is commendable that the commission has reduced from $8,300 USD to $5,300 for male presidential candidates, and from $6,700 USD to $4, 200 USD for female presidential candidates, after engaging with stakeholders. In a poor country with an average monthly income of about $250 USD, however, these fees are still very high.
The ECZ realigned the 2021 election calendar in May, and moved the start date of voter registration from May to October 2020. The commission is developing a new voter register targeting 9 million people. However, voter registration will now only last for 30 days, instead of the 60 days that was planned for before the COVID19 Pandemic. The commission says the change is necessary to meet the 12 August deadline, which is the election date enshrined in the constitution. However, stakeholders are concerned that creating a new voter register of 9 million people in 30 days is impossible, especially with social distancing requirements to prevent the spread of the pandemic.
The current voter register was started in 2006, and the commission has been building on it every election year. People already registered to vote will be retained in the new register for 2021, but unlike in previous election years, they are required to appear for verification at a polling station. Online and mobile voter registration will be implemented to try and achieve the target. The commission has already started a Beta Testing Phase of the online registration platform that will run between 18 to 25 July 2020. The online registration is aimed at facilitating quick data capture only, all voters will still be required to present physically at a polling station to be registered as voters. While this is commendable, internet usage in Zambia is still very low, with only 10% of the population having consistent access. Political analysts have also raised concerns on whether Zambia’s electoral code has provisions for online voter registration. The commission has called on all stakeholders to support its efforts to ensure the target number is reached.
On 8 April 2020 the Government closed Prime Television, renewing fears that media freedoms will be flouted in the run up to the 2021 elections. Prime Television had become the preferred source of news especially by the urban population who find state media to be highly biased and gives more coverage to the ruling political party. There has also been violence by political cadres directed at media houses hosting opposition political parties. Radio stations hosting the main opposition party leader have been raided, journalists beaten and property destroyed in more than three instances, with the latest incident happening on 10 July 2020.
Zambian authorities have also become very apprehensive about the growing influence of social media which is mostly used by young people. With 85% of the population falling below the age of 35, social media has become a very effective channel for spreading information and could be a tipping point for the 2021 election outcome in urban areas. Efforts have been made to police social media use with the country’s telecommunication authority warning users of possible arrest. Various stakeholders have voiced concerns on the shrinking media freedom space, an anchor of democracy, and critical for free and fair elections in 2021.
Perhaps the most critical issue about the 2021 elections is the contentious Constitution Amendment Bill Number 10 of 2019, popularly known as Bill 10, which is proposing significant changes to the current constitution through parliament rather than a referendum. Bill 10, if successful, will significantly increase the powers of the executive, unlike the current constitution which has limited them, and will thus reverse gains made in 2016 when the current amended constitution was adopted.
Bill 10, among other things is proposing to change the adoption mode and composition of members of parliament from the current simple majority system to a mixed member representation. The proposal also seeks to increase the number of elected members of parliament from the current 156. Prominent Zambian constitutional lawyer John Sangwa said in a Radio interview that Bill 10 is essentially introducing a fundamental concept that deals with the election of the legislature into the constitution through an act of parliament, something that is unacceptable. Bill 10 is also seeking to amend the presidential nomination process, as currently, there is a view that the incumbent does not qualify to be nominated for re-election since he has already held two terms of office.
Indeed, as Zambia heads towards the 2021 elections, it will be imperative for legislators and law enforcement agencies to quickly develop a strategy to prevent political violence, safeguard media freedoms and ensure that the elections are peaceful, free and fair. Otherwise Zambia could be heading towards a major electoral crisis.
Natasha Chilundika is a policy analyst, Co-Founder & Director for Human Capacity Growth at PRS 365 Limited. The views expressed here are her own and do not reflect that of any institution.