As each day passes, the nation is drawing closer and closer to the 2021elections. And the closer we get to the eventful day of August 12, 2021, the more we see a lot of issues emerge with regards to politics, campaigns, electoral reforms and voting rights. It is vital that we continue to have such discussions, debates and dialogue rooted in national interest pertaining to the general elections. Amongst all issues in the public discourse, Zambia is faced with a unique topic of discussion, which is the issue of allowing prisoners to vote in the upcoming elections. However, this ongoing debate has proven to be nothing but contentious to say the least. We do not know exactly why the Patriotic Front (PF) government is so keen on pushing for prisoners to be allowed to participate in the general elections for this first time.
Nonetheless, it is fair to observe that most Zambians have a lot of mistrust and misgivings towards the PF government, which is why there is so much skepticism and suspicion as to what this government intends to achieve through such an exercise. Some, if not all opposition political parties, feel that allowing prisoners to vote in next year’s elections is just another scheme by the PF to rig the elections. These opposition leaders argue that prisoners can be vulnerable to state machinery and if not carefully monitored, they can even be forced to vote under duress. In light of all these concerns, we have to be clear that the burden of proof lies with the PF government to guarantee and reassure citizens that the prisoner’s vote will not be manipulated.
The biggest problem we have as a country in this day and age is simply that it has become extremely difficult to have tough and honest discussions among ourselves without resorting to petty issues. Zambia is much more polarised today than it’s ever been in the last 50 years plus. Our politics is divisive, our dialogues are engulfed with emotions rather than facts and people seem to be so intolerant of dissenting views despite the fact that we live in a democracy. All these factors make it even harder for us to approach a topic of voting in prisons objectively. But if we were to put away our biases and political affiliations then we would agree that the right to vote for prisoners or anyone convicted of a serious crimes is restricted in most civilised nations, including but not limited to the United States. In America, if a person is a convicted felon, they risk losing essential rights such as the right to hold public office or the right to vote. Therefore, as a nation, if our goal is to become like the western world or the United States, for example, which is arguable the oldest democracy known to us, then we can concluded that this proposal of prisoners voting in next year’s elections falls short of us emulating other democratic states of the west. However, we should perhaps mention that in terms of voting rights, the United States has always been a work in progress since the inception of that Republic. In fact, some progressive thinkers still argue that restricting voting for prisoners in America is just an extension of Jim Craw laws, because the history of voting rights in that country is inexorable from that issue going all the way back to slavery. Hence, to some people, the unfortunate situation of not allowing convicted felons to vote in the US has been classified as voter suppression. Regardless of whichever side of the argument one may be on, the number one thing which is evident in America is that people have the right to express their opinions without fear or favour. This is what needs to be encouraged in Zambia today; people should have the freedom of expression in real terms, which includes speaking one’s mind freely without fear of intimidation or retaliation from the State.
Notwithstanding the fact that we are having a difficult time as a nation talking to each other, I personally find the debate concerning the right of prisoners to vote in our 2021 general elections very intriguing. First and foremost, there are few things that citizens and our political players need to consider before making this determination as to whether voting of prisoners will be the right thing to do or not. The distinction between the right to vote as a universal and fundamental human right or merely as a constitutional right should be established. Now, if I am not mistaken, the current Zambian constitution as amended in 2016 does not provide for the right of prisoners to vote. Therefore, it is not a constitutional right for our inmates to go to the polls with the rest of the citizens; otherwise I stand to be corrected. Thus, if the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) allows for this exercise to take place within the walls of the prisons, such an act will be a breach of the Republican constitution by both the ECZ and the PF government and both should be held accountable. Now, I am aware that there has been a court ruling or a decision handed down by the courts in favor of the right of prisoners to vote. This is good, but not sufficient to guarantee the kind of exercise which all well meaning Zambians will have confidence in. This government has no capacity to facilitate free and fair elections within the walls of prison without a constitutional mandate outlining the specific details of the process. This is the real issue that cannot be ignored; because if the court’s ruling upon which the PF government will rely to facilitate voting among prisoners does not provide for detailed procedures or outline, nothing good will come out of this process except chaos and resentment.
However, in terms of going forward, it should be up to the Zambian people and not the government to establish whether the right to vote is or should be a fundamental human right of all citizens regardless of their status in society or background. And for example, if the people decided that the right to vote is a universal right of all people; then what we should do is reconcile the situation at hand where we have a fundamental right of citizens in correctional facilities such as the right to vote omitted or not enshrined in the constitution of our Republic. Also, the constitution needs to spell out the obligations that a reasonable government must have with regards to protecting or respecting universal and fundamental voting rights of all people. The day that Zambia takes such steps in sincerity will be the day we will begin to see progressive dialogue among all political players and stakeholders.
Article 21 of the universal declarations of human rights states that; “1. Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. 2. Everyone has the right to equal access to public service in his/her country and 3. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will/shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.” For this reason, I must say that having a debate with regards to voting rights for prisoners is a healthy thing to do, but it must be done without political or tribal inclination. As they say “anyone or everyone is a potential prisoner.” Therefore, we must treat this conversation with the sacredness it deserves and never politicise it. At the same time, I would be failing in my duties to state that the PF government does not have the will to inspire such a transformational undertaking, they are simply attempting to do this for political reasons and that must be stopped at all costs. The rights of prisoners to vote can and must wait until we have a responsible government to implement such measures if and when the Zambian people decided that this is the right thing to do.