Chief Hamusonde says “it is so sad that the political playing field is not levelled for Zambians to make their own independent choices”. “People are being forced to be PF, they are being forced to vote for the PF. We cannot afford to be having petitions every time election results are declared and sadly the PF being in power and the main culprit of electoral malpractices is also in the habit of petitioning election results. With what is happening in Chilubi and other areas where there are by-elections, I can tell you that President Edgar Lungu cannot win an election clean and fair without engaging in malpractices, violence and corruption,” says Hamusonde.
In a constitutional democracy, legitimacy of government is gained through free and fair elections – and the election campaigns, which precede them – that ultimately determines the composition of government. However, it is far from clear that an election in a modern democracy in a capitalist state can ever be completely free and fair.
If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal. But you do not need to believe that voting can never change anything to ask critical questions about the factors that may make it difficult for every single voter to decide freely – and in an informed manner – or which political party he or she should vote for.
Asking such questions is not to deny the importance of elections for all of us who live in a multiparty democracy. In Zambia the act of voting carries a profound symbolic significance. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and of personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts. In a country of great disparities of wealth and power, it declares that whoever we are, whether rich or poor, exalted or disgraced, we all belong to the same nation; that our destinies are intertwined in a single interactive polity.
It is exactly because voting in a national election is a badge of dignity and personhood for those who take part in it, that it is important that we do everything we can to make the process as free and fair as is humanly possible. This requires us to identify the barriers which limit free political activity and thought, and to devise ways of dismantling such barriers.
Free and fair elections are a matter of degree: working towards a more free and fair system is therefore a process, not an event.
Even when voters are free to cast their ballots in secret and where these ballots are all counted accurately, many factors limit the ability of voters to make informed choices about whom to vote for.
It is therefore impossibly optimistic to talk of a truly free and fair election campaign. Election campaigns can be more or less free, but the radical freedom that would allow each voter to make a truly informed choice at the end of an election campaign remains a far-off dream.
At the heart of the problem is the corrosive influence of money and power and the abuse of state institutions like the police, the courts and indeed the Electoral Commission of Zambia itself.
Money skews the electoral process. Political parties with access to money can run far more effective election campaigns than parties without the necessary resources. It is for this reason that the interests of those who can donate large sums of money often play a disproportionate role in the calculations of any political party who aspires to govern the country.
If you have pots of money you can bus supporters to rallies, dish out T-shirts and food parcels, pay popular artistes to perform at the rallies and fly your leaders from one rally to the next.
You can also organise thousands of “volunteers” to phone or personally visit potential voters in their homes to sell your party, its leaders and its message.
You can produce and flight radio and television adverts to sell your party to voters and print millions of posters and flyers to create the impression that your party is a serious entity with real electoral support.
You can pay media consultants to ensure your party’s presence on social media and to advise you on which messages will resonate with potential voters and which will not.
You can also conduct tracking polls to find out whether your campaign is effective or not and adjust the campaign accordingly, shifting resources from areas where you are not gaining traction to other areas where you seem to be gaining support.
A party without the vast sums of money available to the Patriotic Front can do few, if any, of these things and is therefore at a distinct disadvantage in communicating their message to voters. They have to depend on the media to spread their message.
But under normal circumstances the media do not and cannot treat all political parties equally and fairly. Larger parties are given more attention than smaller parties, thus reinforcing the dominance of the larger parties vis-à-vis smaller parties.
Moreover, some media outlets are more sympathetic to some parties than to others.
ZNBC television and radio, whom the vast majority of voters depend on for their information about the election, supports the Patriotic Front and relentlessly promotes its message and its leaders while either ignoring or minimising the messages of other political parties.
The Patriotic Front is also using its control of the police and other state institutions to deny the opposition permits to hold rallies.
A political party which is in government also enjoys the benefits of incumbency. It is a known quantity and in the eyes of many voters appears to be the vehicle through which the state benefits are provided to citizens. Incumbent parties often use (or abuse) state resources and their control of government machinery to reinforce the electoral messages the party wishes to communicate.
Smaller parties or new parties are at a particular disadvantage in this regard as it has neither the resources nor the power to convince voters that it would be able to do a better job than the lot who has been governing over the previous five years.
One of the most effective ways of levelling the playing field is to provide all political parties who have at least some demonstrable electoral support with substantial free access to all radio and television stations to sell themselves to the electorate.
Such free access for all political parties to radio and television will not deal with all the factors that limit the freeness and fairness of elections. But it will represent a major step in democratising the electoral process and levelling the playing field – especially for smaller political parties.
The administration of the public order Act certainly needs to change. It is being grossly abused by the Patriotic Front.