Will Zambia’s elections 2021 be free and fair?
Zambia’s election will be critical for democracy in the country and the broader region. However, warning signs appear ahead.
This Thursday – 12 August 2021 – Zambians will head to polling stations to choose their candidates for President, Parliament, and local councils. There are 7.023.499 registered voters across 12.152 polling stations in 156 constituencies. Although 16 candidates will be contesting the Presidency, most analysts agreed that this election will be a two-horse race between incumbent President Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front (PF) and the United Party of National Development (UPND) candidate, Hakainde Hichilema.
The official results may take days to declare. In 2016, the results were declared 4 days after the election took place. If no presidential candidate receives more than 50% of the valid votes cast, a run-off will be held between the two highest ranking candidates within 37 days of the initial ballot. In 2016, Lungu reached the 50% + 1 threshold by just 13 000 votes. No other candidate secured 1% of the vote. A recent Afrobarometer report has suggested a widespread erosion of PF support in both rural and urban areas, with the number of respondents saying they would vote for the PF down from 44.8% in 2017 to 22.9% in December 2020.
This election period has certainly seen an uneven playing field. Zambia is one of the fastest declining democracies globally. Arbitrary arrests and detentions without charge have become commonplace with Hakainde Hichilema having been detained on 15 occasions. Although COVID-19 restrictions have prevented parties from campaigning in the usual ways, President Lungu and his running mate have continued touring the country on ‘official business’ accompanied by campaign signage, songs and handouts. Meanwhile, Hichilema and his team have been routinely blocked from travelling. Police have regularly blocked or restricted the movements of opposition parties with a report by the Christian Churches Monitoring Group noting police ‘disproportionately’ break up events hosted by the UPND.
The opposition has also struggled to secure access to media. Independent outlets such as The Post, Prime TV, Muvi TV and Komboni Radio have all had their licences revoked or cancelled on either a temporary or permanent basis since President Lungu came to office. Some stations come under attack for hosting opposition politicians.
Several concerns abound over the voter’s roll (electoral register), including the refusal of the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) to submit it to an independent audit. The new roll shows a significant increase in the number of voters in regions that voted for the PF in 2016, with marked decreases in those areas that have historically voted for the UPND. The ECZ has also failed to fund independent observers to supervise the printing of ballot papers as they have provided for in past elections.
Ahead of Thursday’s poll opening, there are credible fears that the Zambian Government will follow the examples of Uganda and Tanzania and shut down the internet in an attempt to control the narrative around election results and hamper opposition and civil society Parallel Voter Tabulation (PVT) efforts. Civil society and the opposition have been calling on the major telecommunications providers to keep the internet on. However, the two biggest cellular companies – MTN and Airtel – have said they cannot guarantee they will not shut down internet access.
Thursday’s polls could also constitute a threat to peace. In an article published earlier this year, Zambian academic Sishuwa Sishuwa warned the election could result in large-scale political unrest. More recently, there have been concerns regarding the behaviour of the police. Comments by the Police Inspector-General directing officers to use “unqualified force to maintain law and order” have sparked alarm given recent civilian fatalities at the hands of the police as documented in Amnesty International’s latest report on Zambia.
On August 1st, President Lungu deployed the military to support the police to ‘keep the Peace’ in Lusaka. There is concern the move is intended to depress the opposition vote in the swing province and/or is an indication that the Government is already preparing to respond to public unrest should the result declared not tally with the expectations of citizens.
Various observer missions have arrived in country, including from the European Union (EU), the Commonwealth, the Carter Centre, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the African Union (AU). Local civil society will also be monitoring the polls. The ECZ has issued updated accreditation guidelines for monitors and observers that have presented several problems for civil society and opposition hoping to observe the polls. Among these are restrictions to the number of monitors permitted.
There have been concerns regarding the ECZ’s use of biometric machines in some constituencies and that these could be used to slow the vote in strategic areas. These have been announced late in the day with limited time for the ECZ to train agents in their use. It also seems that the number of agents allocated to the exercise, 949 people, is far short of the required number to conduct such an exercise.
There are serious concerns that the way in which the ECZ will count the vote will hinder transparency and scrutiny. Against best practice, presidential results will not be announced at the constituency level. Combined with the restrictions being places on party agents and domestic monitors, this will make it harder to identify whether there has been fraud in the tallying process as results move from the polling station level to the national level.
If the election is disputed the opposition can file a petition to contest the declared outcome. Regarding the presidential election, disputes must be taken before the Constitutional Court within seven days from the date on which the results are declared. The petition must be heard within 14 days of the filing. In 2016, the UPND contested the outcome of the election and filed a petition. However, the petition was never heard in court and thrown out on a technicality.
Zambia’s election will be critical for the sustainability of democracy in the country and the broader region at large. While the signs for a free and fair election do not look good heading into Thursday, a peaceful, procedural election that respects the will of the Zambian people will give democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa a much-needed shot in the arm.
Zambia hosts presidential elections on 12th August 2021
Jonathan Moakes, a free lance consultant, is a former CEO of the Democratic Alliance, South Africa.
UPND is a member of the Africa Liberal Network, an alliance of 47 liberal democratic political parties and organisations from 30 African countries.