Zambian Democracy’s Biggest Test Yet

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As one of the few countries to have experienced multiple democratic transfers of power, Zambia has long been considered among Africa’s more promising democracies. During the most recent transfer of power following the 2011 election, the electoral commission remained steadfast in the face of government pressure to fix the results. Despite legitimate misgivings about incoming President Sata’s commitment to democratic principles – as well as the authoritarian populist leanings of his Patriotic Front (PF) party – there was a sense of optimism that a democratic Zambia would persevere. A robust political opposition, a capable and vibrant civil society, and a host of independent media outlets, whose editors were not beholden to the ruling party, all supported this positive outlook.

2011 now feels like a very long time ago. Major warning signs were apparent in the lead up to and during the previous election in 2016, prompting dire forecasts about the future of the country if political reforms failed to gain momentum. Since then, a December 2020 Afrobarometer survey revealed that 75% of Zambian respondents now believe that their country is “going in the wrong direction.” Unsurprisingly, the same survey showed a significant dent in the popularity of the ruling party, with the number of respondents indicating that they would vote for the PF dropping from about 45% in 2017 to only 23% in 2020.

The ruling PF, led today by former defense minister, President Edgar Lungu, has presided over a period of pronounced political and economic decay, including massive democratic backsliding in the country. In fact, Zambia is one of the fastest eroding democracies in the world, according to the Varieties of Democracy Project, one of the most trusted sources of information on democratic progress and regression worldwide.

Over the past six years, the Lungu government has taken an increasingly reckless posture towards the political system and civil liberties of Zambians by harassing civil society groups and jailing activists; introducing and imposing harsh laws that muzzle dissent; tolerating and even encouraging excessive use of force by the police; manipulating the coronavirus pandemic to tilt the political playing field in its favor; and most recently, deploying the Zambian military in key urban areas, a move that observers have criticized as an attempt to instill fear in the population and dissuade opposition supporters from coming out to vote next week.

The ruling party also forced through changes to the constitution that enabled Lungu to stand for a third term in the first place. And they have used accusations of treason and sedition in attempts to silence their chief rivals. This included the 127-day imprisonment of opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, who is once again the main presidential challenger. Overall, Hichilema has been arbitrarily detained by Zambian authorities on fifteen separate occasions. The divisive impact of the strategies employed by the Lungu government, and his henchmen in the country’s security forces, has been thrown into particularly sharp relief by the recent death – and period of national mourning – for founding father and former President Kenneth Kaunda, who was known for his efforts to promote national unity.

The country’s electoral commission, too, once broadly trusted after presiding over several transfers of power, has made a series of cynical decisions that have undermined the election’s integrity – this has included closing off legal avenues for election observers as well as political party agents from scrutinizing vote tallies. Even the electoral register – the cornerstone of any legitimate poll – appears to have been manipulated to benefit the ruling party. The full extent of this suspected malfeasance is unknown because an independent audit of the register has been prevented, despite this being an otherwise common practice in Zambia.

In light of these serious concerns, many Zambians are bravely speaking out, warning that next week’s high stakes election could result in political unrest. The rising tensions – fueled by an atmosphere of intimidation and fear, according to Amnesty International – prompted the Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops to issue a frank assessment in which they expressed concern about political violence. Undoubtedly, the prospects of violence are greatest if the government seeks to overturn a clear opposition win, which many observers believe is a near certainty should the election remotely resemble a free, fair, and credible vote.

Perhaps no other country – and no other upcoming election – better encapsulates the increasingly pitched global struggle of our day in which the forces of elite authoritarianism and popular demands for democracy are clashing. Indeed, Zambia’s election next week will be critical to prospects for the southern Africa region, and is in many ways a tipping point election. It is thus incumbent upon all of us concerned with these crucial issues, in Africa and elsewhere, to do what we can to shine a sustained spotlight on this evolving situation. By doing so we can provide resolve to democrats on the ground, while also putting Zambia’s political leaders and authorities on notice that the world is watching with a keen interest, as it rightly should be.

Jeffrey Smith is the Founding Director of Vanguard Africa and the Vanguard Africa Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter at @Smith_JeffreyT.

This piece was first published by Vanguard Africa. Check them out here.

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