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A free, fair and credible election is possible in Zambia

The Zambian electoral sphere has been busy with unending exchange of accusations among the players and other stakeholders.

The Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) has been in the news in relation to the decisions it has been making concerning the upcoming general elections. Stakeholders mainly the opposition political parties, NGOs, and some individuals have also been busy seeking answers to the many decisions and developments coming from Elections House.

The queries and concerns of the political parties and stakeholders started in February, 2020 when the ECZ chief electoral officer Patrick Nshindano announced that following the case of Godfrey Malembeka versus the Attorney General and the Commission in which the court held that prisoners’ right to vote should be upheld, the ECZ in fulfilling this ruling was working on modalities to allow prisoners to vote in the 2021 general election.

The decision of allowing prisoners to vote was followed by the dropping of another big announcement. The ECZ chief electoral officer went on to announce that the Commission would not sponsor any stakeholders to verify the printing of the 2021 ballot papers in Dubai because the cost involved in taking political parties to that city was high. Just like the news of allowing prisoners to vote, the below announcement did not sit well with stakeholders as it ignited rigging suspicions as stakeholders complained of lack of consultation by the ECZ:

“In 2016, we had ferried political parties to go and verify the ballot paper printing. This time around, this will not happen. That is the cost we are going to avoid. If political parties want to come through and verify, they will be more than free to join at their own costs. But as the commission, we will not be able to incur those costs obviously because it is a cost unwarranted for and the country, as you know it is quite tight in terms of fiscal space that we have so we need to be prudent in terms of how we manage resources,” Nshindano announced on Diamond Television, and this was not the end to the announcements.

In June, 2020 the elections body further announced without consultation with stakeholders that it had increased nomination fees for the 2021 general election. The Commission had proposed an upward adjustment on presidential, parliamentary, mayoral and councillorship nomination fees. The Commission proposed that nomination fees for presidential candidates be increased to K150, 000 from K60, 000 while those for parliamentary candidates be increased to K 25,000 from K 7,500.

The increments received condemnation even from the secretary general of the ruling party, Davies Mwila who described the fees as ‘elitist’ and amounting to commercialisation of participation in the democratic processes. “The Patriotic Front does not support the upward adjustment of nomination fees announced by the Electoral Commission of Zambia because we believe in inequitable participation in the affairs of our nation by all citizens regardless of their socio-economic status, the party wishes to express its strongest displeasure with the proposed upward revision,” Mwila said. However, due to mounting pressure and condemnation, in July, 2020 the ECZ announced the revised fees for the 2021 general elections.

In September 2020, the ECZ announced that all eligible Zambian citizens who would not register during the 2020 voter registration exercise would not qualify to vote in the 2021 general election. The Commission further said that eligible Zambians who would not register would only be eligible to vote in future elections when the Commission undertook another voter registration exercise after the 2021 general election. “If you do not register you will not vote in the 2021 general elections. The current voter’s card will not be used in the 2021 general elections,” read the commission’s statement.

And in responding to the complaints and concerns raised by stakeholders in relation to all eligible voters re-registering, ECZ through its chief electoral officer said the introduction of the new voter’s register was as a result of recommendations made by political parties, international observers and auditors back in 2016, which the Commission were now implementing:

“The new voters’ register is a result of recommendations made by political parties, international observers as well as the auditors of the register in 2016. All reports are available and were shared with political parties at the time. It must be noted that political parties expressed concerns with the 2016 voter’s roll, alleging that deceased persons and foreigners were appearing on the register. In that regard, political parties and international observers, as well as auditors, recommended that a new voter registration be undertaken, noting that the lifespan of a voter’s roll should not be more than 10 years.”

Clearly, there is a lot of work to be done before ECZ, political parties, NGOs and Zambians at large can confidently say a free, fair and credible election is possible in August 2021.The concerns of political parties and other stakeholders are fertile ground for petitioning the 2021 general election results if left unattended to. In fact, we expect the cries of the opposition parties to include unfair media coverage, biased policing, biased judicial decisions, biased and corrupt electoral officers as well as electoral corruption by those in power because voters are bribed using public resources.

However, despite all the above listed concerns, I still believe that a free, fair, and credible election is still possible in Zambia. The question is, what needs to be done for Zambia to achieve a free, fair and credible election? Well, for any political election to be said to be free and fair, the pre-election, election, and post-election periods must be characterised by the opening up of democratic spaces, respect of human rights, and the protection of fundamental civil and political rights of all citizens.

There can be no free and fair election where people are forced to vote, denied voting or are systematically denied the vital information to enable them make informed political decisions.

The election must take place in a system in which active and passive suffrage rights are fully assured. There should be no other cause for exclusion than what is specifically envisaged by law to guarantee the freedom of all voters, correct operation of the process, and without discrimination.

The ECZ must act independent of the rest of the state powers, especially the executive, and be absolutely neutral. The election must take place, in all aspects, in an atmosphere where all citizens’ rights to participation are observed by allowing them to share their opinions, to demonstrate, and to meet and campaign freely because without this atmosphere, the election results themselves, as an expression of the will of the people, will be falsified.

Importantly, all players in the election must be willing to respect and follow the standard procedures established to guarantee the casting of votes, assuring freedom and secrecy, and truthful vote counting. Additionally, the players must have respect and confidence in the systems in place that apply pre-established legal rules envisaged to solve disputes and conflicts of any kind that might emerge during or as a consequence of the electoral process.

Ultimately, for an election to be considered ‘free and fair’, or competitive, it must minimally satisfy the following requirements: firstly, there must be transparency in the entire process. Each step of the election process should be easily understood and open to scrutiny by all stakeholders (voters, political parties, outside observers and others) and all results should be independently verifiable and auditable.

Secondly, voters’ privacy must be guaranteed and respected. The choices that each voter makes should remain private both during and after the election. Thirdly, Integrity must be at the centre of the entire process. Only eligible voters should be allowed to vote, and those votes must be protected from any alteration or exclusion.

Fourthly, the process must be affordable to all. The election process must be affordable to government and citizens in order to maintain sovereignty. Fifthly, the polling stations must be accessible to all voters. All eligible voters, regardless of location, group membership or disability, should have reasonable and equal opportunity to cast their ballot.

Until next time, for now, be reminded that the most fundamental principle defining a credible election is that it must reflect the free expression of the will of the people. To achieve this, the election should be transparent, inclusive, and accountable, and there must be equitable opportunities to compete in the election.

The author is a development activist and social commentator. Send comment to: gregory. kaputula@gmail.com

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