Level political playing field

United States Embassy Charge d’Affaires David Young says his government is interested in seeing a level playing field for all political players in Zambia ahead of the 2021 general elections.

Young says although Washington would never take sides in Zambia’s elections, it would strive to promote equal opportunities for all participants.

“We want a level playing field where all candidates will campaign on a level platform. We will support freedom of speech, freedom of the media. We don’t want to see political party cadres invading radio stations. I meet with a lot of political party leaders. I meet with the PF, the UPND and other political party leaders, including President [Edgar] Lungu. And I tell them that we want a level playing field. We don’t take sides as the US government because our interest is ensuring that democracy flourishes in Zambia where the Zambian people can make independent choices,” says Young.

In politics, a level playing field is a concept about fairness, not that each player has an equal chance to win elections, but that they all play by the same set of rules.

In a game played on a playing field, such as soccer or football, one team would have an unfair advantage if the field had a slope. Since some real-life playing fields do in fact have slopes, it is customary for teams to swap ends of the playing field at half time.

A metaphorical playing field is said to be level if no external interference affects the ability of the players to compete fairly.

If the rules affect different political parties and candidates differently, then there’s no level playing field.

An uneven playing field is a central, yet underappreciated, component of contemporary authoritarianism. Today in Zambia, democratic competition is undermined by restrictions on opposition political parties to mobilise public support, unequal access to public news media outlets and state institutions. When opposition are denied permits to hold rallies and other public meetings, access to public news media outlets, their ability to compete in elections is impaired.

A skewed playing field may thus allow autocrats to maintain power without resorting to the kind of fraud or repression that can undermine their international standing, allowing them, in effect, to have their cake and eat it too.

Some incumbent advantage, and thus obstacle to political competition, is inevitable and exists in all democracies, old and new. But, a skewed playing field against some political actors undermines the capacity of challengers to effectively oppose ruling parties and thus reflects a low quality democracy or, if systematic, a regime that has yet to cross the threshold of democracy.

What matters is the absence of highly skewed playing field in this respect which would undermine the capacity of those outside government to compete in and outside elections.

This also includes extensive abuse of state resources and of the legal system with the aim of achieving partisan gains and punishing opposition supporters, manipulating elections, harassing opposition and civil society activists, and sometimes even using violence. As a result, this kind of rule undermines minimal democratic standards, including free and fair elections and basic freedoms, such as freedoms of speech, assembly, press and association.

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