By Luke Akal (Liberal Democratic Voice)
Democracies in the developing world must often overcome a number of hurdles on the road to maturity and development as a stable state. Peaceful elections, a vibrant civil society, regular transfer of power, and fair service delivery are all key indicators of democratic development. No doubt, differences in the maturing of democracies should be considered based on local realities, and a so-called Western roadmap must not be the only lens through which we view this development.
But has the southern African country of Zambia, rich in copper and with plentiful tourism potential, had one too many close calls in its democratic development? Does Zambia and its people need to rethink their political path?
The most recent August 11th elections certainly give that impression.
This year’s General Elections resulted in the incumbent Edgar Lungu (Patriotic Front – PF) winning the presidential race by just over 2.5%, enough to avoid a second-round run-off. The liberal opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), led by Hakainde Hichilema, also lost the last presidential by-election by a mere 27,757 votes. Those early presidential elections were called after the passing of former President Michael Sata in 2014. On the surface, these results appear to be a sign of political maturity, with an election called upon President Sata’s death and an apparently democratic process in place for political succession.
Indeed, following the end of Kenneth Kaunda’s autocratic rule in 1991, Zambia did begin a process of ‘democratisation’, enjoying multi-party elections and a more representative version democracy than they had in the past. Five nationwide elections have since been held, with new and old parties coming and leaving the political scene, all whilst Zambia has received international recognition as a good example of peaceful transitions and elections. In spite of shifts in the politics of the country, life remained relatively stable no matter one’s personal political affiliation. This is something not to be taken for granted, especially when considering certain neighbours of the country, such as the DR Congo, where such stability is considered enviable.
However, it appears that Zambia has taken a turn for the worst of late. There are even suggestions that the leadership of a different neighbour, Zimbabwe, has set an example which President Lungu seeks to adopt and bring home. Widespread violence, allegations of vote rigging, intimidation, and state media bias in the past elections, all do no favours for the fledgling democracy in Zambia.
The turning point may have been the passing of President Sata two years ago. Following the former leader’s death, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) finally lost elections after governing for 20 years, opening the way for the close contests between the liberal UPND and the PF which have followed. Additionally, tension and infighting in the PF has resulted in the tightening of Lungu’s grip on the party and near-paranoia to remain in power by almost any means, including the appointment of sympathetic electoral commissioners, judges and state broadcasters. Even the Zambian police force is not beyond the grip of the president.
Political violence, especially around election time, has dramatically spiked. The UPND’s supporters have been subject to numerous attacks across the country, with some sources informing us that the party’s members and volunteers have been intimidated so as not to wear even party regalia for fear of their lives. Another specific example is the stoning and torching of an opposition campaign bus by PF cadres just a few short weeks prior to polling day. Tragically, a female UPND supporter was shot and killed by police in the capital of Lusaka as the party organised a march to the city’s central business district. No follow-up or conclusive investigation into the matter has been prioritised by the authorities.
From the presidency in Lusaka to his supporters in the remotest regions, the fundamental democratic and liberal principle of tolerance – for political, cultural and personal differences – is slowly yet dangerously being eroded.
Even the Africa Liberal Network (ALN), the largest political affiliation on the continent, endured a close call prior to elections. As the network’s coordinator, I held meetings with the International Committee of the UPND at the party’s secretariat. On one occasion, the building was nearly stormed, looted and burned to the ground by PF cadres whilst I was midway through a presentation. Party officials and I escaped near-disaster by fleeing the property and the armed PF forces.
Following this year’s elections, the UPND challenged the results in court, a legal recourse afforded by Zambia’s relatively progressive constitution. Between the announcement of the election results and the inauguration of the president, fourteen days are granted for the Constitutional Court to be petitioned on fraudulent elections. In spite of strong arguments produced by the opposition, the time period expired and no extension was granted for any legal challenge. Now, Edgar Lungu is set to once more be inaugurated on September 13th.
Lungu and his Patriotic Front will have to confront more challenges, however, this time from the Zambian people, the economy and foreign investors. Issues such as skyrocketing inflation of over 20%, loss of investor confidence, tumbling copper prices, and an overall weakening economy must all be overcome by Lungu’s new government.
Failing this, the ballot box may not be the only means by which Zambians will make their choices; the stability of democracy in the state could then be questioned even further. How many more close-calls should Zambians endure before the political system is responsive to their demands? The future of Zambian democracy is at stake.
* Luke Akal is Coordinator of the Africa Liberal Network