Proportional Representation and democracy in Zambia

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Is proportional representation the solution to Zambia’s politics of personality? Can it improve public policy making and implementation? Timothy Wild explores prospects for Proportional Representation in Zambia. But, is there political will to change?


The result of the recent by-election in the Zambian constituency of Sesheke was hardly a surprise. The seat, won by the United Party for National Development (UPND) in the 2016 general election, was easily retained by the party in February’s vote.  In the weeks leading up to voting day, various media outlets ran stories and op-ed pieces which, depending on their partisan affiliation, either praised “their” party or rubbished other parties.  I want to say that this posturing was based at least on a somewhat rational analysis of the policies of the various parties, but I can’t. To me, the recent by-election simply confirms the dominant role that personality, as opposed to policy, plays in the politics of the country. Moreover, this over-reliance on the power and charisma of people (as opposed to the more mundane realms of ideas, policy and values) perpetuates the ongoing marginalization of far too many Zambians.

This situation is hardly new. Zambian politics has long been dominated by charismatic individuals. The names of Kenneth Kaunda, Frederick Chiluba, Michael Sata, Hakainde Hichilema and, current president, Edgar Lungu readily spring to mind. However, at the same time as the politics of personality has become institutionalized, the country has continued to face significant social, economic and cultural issues. This emphasis on personality results in less attention to the formulation and implementation of effective, efficient and transformative public policy. The predominance of personalities also limits authentic political discourse and does not help build the broad-based social movements needed to challenge and solve complex problems. 

Evidence of this can be seen in Zambia’s current economic situation. The over-dependence on copper, and limited attempts at diversification, has led to crushing debt. Issues of debt servicing, debt load, deficit financing and corruption are having a deleterious impact on the availability and distribution of national financial resources. The Centre for Trade Policy and Development (CTPD) suggests Zambia’s external debt is over $9.5 billion (US), with internal debt of some $4.5 billion (US) and arrears of about $1 billion (US). A loan from the European Union is coming due, and there is the unclear specter of debt to China. As noted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the country is at “high risk of debt distress”. In response, the CTPD is advocating that the IMF extend a support package to Zambia to help deal with the debt crisis. However, the Trojan horse of IMF involvement (not currently on offer, by the way), would have significant consequences for Zambians surviving on the social and economic margins of the country. The IMF conditionalities of the 1980s need to be kept in mind.

The Patriotic Front government has made attempts to increase public revenue, as reflected in the 2019 Budget with the introduction of a value added tax (to promote in country refinement), a windfall tax and changes to the royalty regime. However, foreign mining companies oppose these changes and contend they are cutting into the viability of their investments. Companies have threatened to reduce production or sell their Zambian stakes and move their investments to Central and South America.  Then there is the veiled threat, reflecting perhaps the wax nature of the fruits of Corporate Social Responsibility, that companies will no longer support the provision of education, health care and infrastructure in towns close to their mines – a clear attack on the working class. 

In response, there is a need for politics based on public wellbeing not personalities. I would argue a solution to the over-reliance on individuals as opposed to platforms is in the implementation of some model of Proportional Representation (PR). A mixed method of PR could be introduced which would still maintain single-member constituencies, elected, hopefully, by a method other than the patently ‘undemocratic’ method of first-past-the-post. And these constituencies could be augmented by the addition of seats that reflect the percentage of the overall vote each party actually receives. Scotland, for example, uses such an approach. The majority of the Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) are elected in single-member constituencies, but these are augmented by MSPs elected by regions based on the distribution of the overall percentage of the vote. This has resulted in a greater range of voices in the Scottish Parliament, and, this diversity of voices has resulted in more representative public policy. The process of legislative development may not be as efficient as in majority settings with whips and party discipline, but public policy decisions are more effective given the plurality of voices and ideas. 

Maybe Zambia could follow this model? Perhaps reduce the number of single member seats, and add “top up” seats from the vote in each of the provinces? Then the Zambian electoral map would not be as stark and divided as it currently is; opposition voices could be heard. This would then encourage politicians to have a more nuanced approach to politics and force them to develop policies that respond to the needs of the people. It would also allow people to have a greater opportunity to vote their conscience knowing that their vote would not be wasted, and would be reflected in a more diverse, policy-based legislature.  The dual value of the vote – for their constituency and the country – would be more explicitly recognised. Perhaps such an approach could be introduced for the general elections scheduled for 2021.

However, a change of approach would be of far greater benefit than simply changing the way elections occur.  It would also provide for significant evolution in the use of the more important democratic space between elections. If there was a greater variety of voices heard in parliament, there would be greater opportunity for more effective transformative public policy. The Bill of Rights could be amended so that there is an enforceable right to economic, cultural and social rights of citizenship, including healthcare, water and education. Taxation could be considered in terms of what is best for the common good. And people could decide if they want to remain subject to the whims of international capitalism or regain some agency in the stewardship of the resources of the country.  It could also create greater public discourse and more of a role for civil society. Overall, the adoption of some model of Proportional Representation would be of tremendous value and impact to Zambia, and would result in a more just, humane and inclusive country.  

Timothy Wild is a Social Worker in Canada and has volunteered at the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection in Lusaka, Zambia

4 thoughts on “Proportional Representation and democracy in Zambia

  1. Fair enough – the pros and cons of PR are well known, but the author doesn’t seem to ground them in any political Zambian voice. Are there any factions of parties or other political actors advocating for this? To compare with the UK where a similar discussion has lost momentum, it was led by smaller parties who loose out on parlimentary seats to the two large parties, who successfully closed down the conversation as it clearly benefits them

  2. I broadly agree that first-past-the-post is a pretty terrible system designed to increase decision-making power; it can be beneficial to a body politic’s dynamism but undermines democracy imho.

    But this article’s two clear swipes at international business in Zambia are unfounded and the type of journalism that breeds anti-foreign conspiracies (which politicians then capitalise on in campaigns):
    1) the Zambian VAT is being replaced with a sales tax, which the entire Zambian business community – local business people and think tank reps included – agrees is a terrible idea.
    2) as in many countries facing immediate ‘unexpected’ fiscal threats, it is not the idea of a windfall tax or a royalties hike that is opposed, it is the reactionary and rushed means by which they are introduced. Uncertainty is the antithesis of business, but business can adapt to any environment with time, be it wartime Iraq or Ebola-stricken Guinea. What is necessary for business is foresight.
    3) the most inconsiderate accusation in this article, the CSR programmes cannot be both ‘wax nature’ and an attack on the working class. Either they are impactful or not. And the fact that, when facing financial issues themselves due to unexpected additional charges from whimsical regulatory change, a company would seek to cut its costs is surely not surprising. Where they cut them is always a difficult decision, but labour and production output reductions would arguably be worse… there is no right answer here.

    All this to say, as an article on politics I agree with the premise. But the foreign investment-bashing is gratuitous and detracts from it I’m afraid.

    1. Thanks for the comment Adrian. I appreciate the feedback. Obviously, I do see the power of foreign investment as a major impediment to the social, political and economic development of Zambia. I know that two Canadian companies in the Copperbelt, for example, hold considerable sway over the national agenda, and the fruits of CSR are trotted out as one of the many benefits of foreign investment. But decisions that significantly have an impact on economic, social and cultural rights of citizenship need to be made in legislatures not board rooms. Take care.

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