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Why Zambia’s 2021 election is a matter of life and death for Lungu and Hichilema

On 23 February 2020, Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) chief electoral officer Patrick Nshindano appeared on Sunday Interview, a Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation television programme hosted by Grevazio Zulu every Sunday evening that typically consists of an in-depth, one-on-one 60-minute interview with a prominent guest.

Zambians who had hoped that Nshindano would use the platform to explain how the Commission plans to conduct next year’s general election in a transparent and credible manner were left disappointed. He predicted that the 2021 general election will be ‘a tight race’ and highly contested, just like the 2016 one which saw a minimal margin of results between President Edgar Lungu and opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) leader Hakainde Hichilema.”

“We are coming from a very contested 2016 general election”, Nshindano told his host, “where the margins between the incumbent and the opposition were quite minimal. And now we are getting again to a very highly contested election in 2021”.

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with predicting election results when qualified individuals or institutions undertake the task. It is normal and absolutely harmless for academics working on, say, political parties and elections to forecast the possible outcome of an electoral contest. When the researcher undertakes this task, the important point to note is not the prediction per se, but the reasons or explanations that the person making the prediction advances in support of their prediction. This ‘evidentiary base’ of their position enables other interested researchers or students of electoral politics to either contest the prediction made or even build upon it. So, when one makes a prediction, it is critical to ask them to explain what exactly they mean and why they think that way, in instances where the source of their prediction has not been made available. This would lend credibility to the prediction.

The problem arises when the person or institution making the prediction is an official of a national electoral body, as creates room for misunderstand. In this regard, Nshindano’s comments that Zambia’s 2021 elections would be highly contested and a tight race were inappropriate for two main reasons. The first is that they fall outside the established function of the institution that he officially represents – ECZ. The core function of the Electoral Commission of Zambia is to organise, supervise and administer elections in a fair and impartial manner.

It is beyond the constitutional and legal mandate of the Commission to make predictions or to pronounce itself on possible closeness, outcomes or contestation of future electoral contests. The task of making such predictions is a responsibility of researchers working on elections, political analysts, election pollsters, or even the competing political actors who may simply want to embellish their chances of victory. The Commission’s job is to facilitate and promote conditions that are conducive to the holding of free and fair elections.

The second reason that makes Nshindano’s comments inappropriate is that there are too many variables that can change between now and August 2021 in a manner that is likely to undermine the accuracy of any election forecast. We do not, for instance, know the names of candidates yet and total number of those who will seek election, say, to the position of President of Zambia in 2021. Would the governing Patriotic Front (PF) field President Lungu or would the ruling party choose another candidate at its forthcoming convention slated for 10-12 July 2020?

Would the main opposition UPND field Hichilema or another political leader? Would the National Democratic Congress leader Chishimba Kambwili be on the ballot or would he be a running mate to Hichilema or someone else? Would the two socialist parties led by Fred M’membe and Wynter Kabimba each float a presidential candidate? No one is in any position, at this stage, to provide definite answers to these key questions.

Even if we assumed that there will be only two presidential candidates, say, Lungu and Hichilema, in 2021, there is no guarantee that either of them would obtain the same or close to the same number of votes that they received in the 2016 election, or that the overall result would be as close as the previous one. This is because the loyalties of Zambians who previously voted for the two political leaders may have shifted since then or over the past few years. For instance, some of those who previously voted for Hichilema may this time opt to vote for M’membe or Kambwili. This is more likely to be the case in some constituencies of Western, Muchinga, Lusaka and Copperbelt provinces where a number of voters may be prone to ideological, ethnic and populist mobilisations.

Similarly, some among those who voted for President Lungu in 2016 may this time decide to take their votes elsewhere in protest against his record in office since then. For instance, Lungu has presided over the worst ever economic performance; highest levels of corruption; highest incidence of inequality; greatest assaults on democracy, civil liberties and the political opposition; highest levels of debt; and deepening ethnic divisions.

In any case, it is not enough for any of the individual political leaders to express interest in seeking election to the position of President of Zambia. One also has to be validly nominated, in line with the provisions of the Constitution of Zambia and other relevant electoral laws. For example, Article 52 of the current Constitution allows any citizen to legally challenge the nomination of a candidate who has filed their nomination for President within seven days of the close of nominations. It also obligates the court to hear the matter within 21 days of its lodgement and to make a conclusive determination of these processes at least 30 days before a general election.

So, it is not a foregone conclusion that once a candidate for elective public office has filed in their nomination papers, they would be on the ballot. To the contrary, a candidate can be disqualified either by the ECZ or the courts of law by relying on Article 52. This probably explains why Article 52 is among the clauses that the PF seeks to remove from the Constitution through the deplorable Constitution of Zambia (Amendment) Bill Number 10.

Given all these unpredictable variables, how did the Electoral Commission of Zambia chief electoral officer reach or arrive at the conclusion that the 2021 election will be highly contested and end up as a tight race? Was there any scientific polling that was conducted that renders credibility to the Commission’s views? If yes, who conducted that poll and why is the ECZ playing the role of the pollster’s publicity? If Nshindano is unable to provide satisfactory responses to these questions, then he would do well to withdraw those inappropriate remarks and apologise to the public because his comments have the potential to be misunderstood and undermine the credibility of the electoral process, long before the first ballot is cast.

Already, public trust in the capacity of the Electoral Commission of Zambia to conduct a transparent, free and fair election is at its lowest ebb. Nshindano’s comments would only further erode the public’s confidence in the credibility of the institution. To regain public trust and confidence, the Electoral Commission needs to be consultative, transparent and build consensus with all the key stakeholders that are involved in the electoral process. This includes representatives of political parties, civil society, and international institutions or bodies that help finance Zambia’s elections like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Building consensus is important because it guarantees trust and credibility in the integrity of the electoral process.

If Nshindano’s prediction that the 2021 election will be a tight race comes to pass, then the integrity and credibility of the electoral process would crucially determine the willingness of the losers to accept the outcome. There are many Zambians who, on the one hand, believe that President Lungu and his crew in the PF may attempt to perpetuate their stay in power by manipulating the 2021 elections in their favour. Others, mainly the opposition and their supporters, think that the main opposition UPND and Hichilema will likely rebel against an election result that lacks credibility. The best way of avoiding either outcome is for the ECZ to build public trust in the institution, establish consensus, strike compromises where necessary, and promote transparency and openness in the electoral process – in short, establishing a truly independent electoral commission.

I have read, for instance, that the ECZ intends to choose the controversial Dubai-based firm, Al Ghurairi Printing and Publishing, to print ballots for the 2021 election. Without establishing consensus with key actors, this innocuous move can be a source of much tension and potentially undermine the integrity or credibility of the results. I also understand that prisoners and Zambians in the diaspora may be allowed to vote in 2021. Again, it is crucial that these matters are discussed and decided in a timely manner and in a way that fosters trust and promotes transparency. What, for instance, is the total population of prisoners in Zambia or of Zambians in the diaspora? How would political parties mobilise prisoners or voters in the diaspora? To leave the determination of these issues to the eleventh hour risks creating suspicion in the integrity of the electoral process.

Even more concerning is the announcement by the ECZ that the current voter’s’ roll will be entirely discarded to pave way for the creation of a brand new one. There is no sufficient justification for this move, given the limited time that is remaining before the next election. To create a totally new voters roll, about a year before the elections, would be a difficult undertaking, one that is likely to disenfranchise many eligible voters, especially in rural Zambia where many people have to cover great distances to the ‘Boma’, the main site of the issuance of National Registration Cards – a pre-requisite for obtaining a voter’s card. What all these considerations underscore is the need for broad consultation, dialogue, active listening, transparency, necessary compromises and co-operation on the part of the ECZ.

Much will be at stake in the 2021 election. For both President Lungu and UPND’s Hichilema, winning Zambia’s 2021 election is a matter of life and death, politically speaking.

Lungu and his crew will seek to win in order to escape possible prosecution. All of Zambia’s former presidents, aside those who died in office, have faced trials after leaving office and Lungu is already facing questions about the sources of his newfound wealth. Possible prosecution for corruption, embezzlement or criminal misuse of power cannot be far from his mind. The solution is to remain in power for as long as possible or until a pliant successor can be installed.

Another possible reason why Lungu may be so unwilling to leave office is that he is beholden to the business and political interests of certain individuals that contributed to his rise. According to well-placed PF insiders, this group is fearful of what might happen if Lungu steps down and that, in seeking another term, the president is not speaking for himself alone. Lungu has many political and business figures around him, many of whom were marginalised under the late President Michael Sata but have flourished under him. This group feels its time in the corridors of power has been too brief thus far and wants more time to accumulate through the state. They can see clearly how those they replaced are now languishing. Senior government and ruling party figures say that this circle has captured virtually all state institutions.

The term “state capture” is topical in South Africa, but applies fully to the situation in Zambia too. In fact, in Zambia, it is not only the executive that has been captured, but a whole range of public institutions including the police, security services, investigative agencies, the media, the electoral commission and National Prosecution Authority. One could arguably add the judiciary, parliament and various other bodies to this list too. Lungu’s administration successfully closed down the previously leading critical free press and has almost succeeded in muzzling civil society. Many believe the president’s allies are behind the frequent arrests of prominent opposition figures. Meanwhile, this group has even extended its influence over the church thanks to the president’s new powers to appoint a Minister of Religion. Through misuse of the police, impunity and bogus prosecutions, Lungu and his associates have created a general climate of fear in Zambia and are therefore effectively in charge of everybody except for those seeking martyrdom. How far this group is willing to go to maintain this grip on power remains to be seen.

As for Hichilema, he has already indicated that he will step down from the leadership of the UPND if he loses the 2021 election. This means that next year’s poll will be his last. Hichilema, who has led the UPND since 2006 and lost five successive presidential elections, will seek to win in order to prevent the end of his political career on a very low note. The stakes could not be any higher, for both Lungu and Hichilema. What is needed is an impartial referee who will apply the rules of the game fairly and provide a level playing field for the political players who are competing for ‘Government’. Can the Electoral Commission of Zambia be that non-aligned referee? The Commission has no choice, in my view, if it is to produce a credible outcome that would be acceptable to all concerned and save the country from large-scale political violence.

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