By Ellen Dingani and Ian Goredema
THE Zambia general elections held on August 12, 2021 were the seventh since the reintroduction of multi-party democracy in 1991. Hakainde Hichilema, President of the United Party for National Development (UPND) emerged the victor for the Presidential seat.
This was the sixth time for Hichilema to contest as a presidential candidate and the third time in a row where he was contesting against Dr Edgar Lungu.
Hichilema won by a margin of 59,4% of the votes cast while the President of the Patriotic Front (PF), President Lungu received 38,3% of the votes and was seeking a second term.
Following the invitation from the Zambian Government, and during the period leading to the Zambian elections, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) deployed a learning observation mission which was accredited by the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) to observe the polling day processes and those at the National Results Centre.
To enhance its understanding of the socio-economic and political context as well as election-related procedures and processes, the Zesn team interacted with various stakeholders mostly domestic election observer groups, media, and civil society organisations in Zambia.
While the political context of Zambia is not identical to that which obtains in Zimbabwe, there are many lessons that electoral stakeholders can draw from these elections.
Whenever elections are held across the world, there are positive and negative developments that provide learning points for election stakeholders.
The political context in the period leading up to the 2021 general elections was marred by an uneven political playing field for electoral contestants.
Reports from domestic observers indicated the selective application of Covid-19 regulations, restrictions on freedoms of assembly and movement, allegations of electoral malpractices, which threatened the general elections, arbitrary and selective application of the law, polarised media space, violence, tribalism and abuse of incumbency, among others, marred the election.
According to domestic observer reports, both the UPND and PF parties were identified as victims and instigators of politically-motivated violence, hate speech which in some instances included the use of vulgar language, intimidation, and harassment of citizens, and cyber-bullying, among others.
Tensions between the two major political parties escalated to a point where the ECZ felt compelled to temporarily suspend campaigns in some Constituencies around the country.
Twelve days before polling day, the former President announced the deployment of the Zambia Defence Force to support police efforts to maintain peace during the run-up to the elections, a move that was condemned by many local, regional and international stakeholders.
On the economic front, according to the World Bank, the country has huge economic challenges, which include debt, corruption, poor fiscal management, and high unemployment.
While the political, legal, economic and social context for the respective countries in Southern African countries may differ, there are valuable lessons that may be adapted for consideration by Zimbabwean stakeholders to inform ongoing efforts to improve the quality of electoral processes in the country.
Zambia is one of the countries in Africa that have decided to uphold democracy in the context of Covid-19, ensuring that the principle of universal suffrage is respected by successfully conducting its elections. The Zesn team learned that in the run-up to the general election, the ECZ worked with the Ministry of Health to form a Multi-sectoral Technical Committee that developed modalities and guidelines for conducting elections in the era of the pandemic.
A detailed document of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) Against Covid-19 was developed to guide the ECZ’s work as well as that of political parties and other electoral stakeholders.
The Zesn observed that at almost all polling stations that the team visited, the Covid-19 protocols were not systematically adhered to as many voters were not observing social distancing, sanitising or washing of hands with soap and running water, despite the fact that ECZ made adequate provisions at every polling station.
The right to vote by all citizens and upholding the principle of universal suffrage are key principles that are enshrined in the Constitutions of many jurisdictions.
Following a Constitutional Court ruling that the right of prisoners to vote must be upheld, the ECZ put in place mechanisms such as voter registration, voter education, and polling stations to facilitate the implementation of prison voting for the first time since the country got independence in 1964.
The Zesn observed that the secrecy of the vote was upheld at the polling stations in the prisons, and that both party agents and observers were granted access to the polling stations.
The ECZ is required by law to give accredited party agents stationed at polling stations a hard copy of the polling station-based voters’ roll in the same format as the one that polling officials will be using at that particular polling station.
This confidence building measure allows for party agents to effectively track the polling process as well as satisfy themselves that only eligible voters are receiving ballot papers and casting their votes at a particular polling station. This also increases transparency and reduces fears of bussing in of voters by some political parties.
A neutral and professional Election Management Body (EMB) is essential for free and fair elections. The Zesn team observed that the conduct of the ECZ staff on polling day was professional and the opening, polling, and closing procedures were consistently applied at all the polling stations that the team visited. The polling station layout was satisfactory and in most polling stations it was compliant with Covid-19 protocols. However, some civil society organizations and political parties complained about the level of consultations and communication by the EZC about the electoral process which was regarded as inadequate.
Unlike in Zimbabwe where political parties are not registered and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) does not have the power to effectively enforce the Political Parties Code of Conduct, in Zambia, the ECZ has the legal power to enforce the Electoral Code of Conduct, which is embedded in the Electoral Processes Act.
This is provided under Article 229, Sub-article 2 (e) of the Zambian Constitution and subparagraphs 4(1) (c) (d) (i) and 11 (d) of the Electoral Code of Conduct.
The Zesn team observed exertion of powers by the ECZ, which suspended campaign activities for individuals or political parties who were found violating the Electoral Code of Conduct. The major culprits were the then ruling PF and the main opposition UPND parties.
For instance, a few days before the polling day, two supporters of the PF lost their lives in clashes with the UPND in Kanyama Constituency in Lusaka.
Upon completion of its investigations, the ECZ banned UPND from conducting any form of campaign in the Constituency. Most stakeholders that interacted with the Zesn team applauded the ECZ for their ability to enforce the Electoral Code of Conduct without fear or favour.
Such powers may empower the Zec to better manage the behaviour of political parties during the campaign period, in particular, ending the use of hate language, cyber-bullying, and violence among others.
Overall, the Zambia general elections recorded a high turnout of about 70%. However, it seemed the polling officials were not adequately prepared for such a high turnout. There were polling stations across the country that reportedly finished polling close to midnight, and only commenced counting the following day.
It is therefore important for the ECZ to review its polling stations thresholds for registered voters to a number that can be reasonably processed within the official voting hours.
In order to increase transparency in the results management system, the ECZ converted all polling streams into polling stations, this allowed votes to be counted, collated and displayed outside each respective polling station.
The results would then be transmitted to the next collation centres until they reach the National Results Centre. At the National Results Centre, the results were verified by the ECZ together with representatives of the various political parties. When ECZ announced results for the first 15 Constituencies, representatives of the UPND raised an objection as results for one of the Constituencies did not tally with what they had recorded, prompting the ECZ to recheck their own figures and make appropriate adjustments. The presence of international observers, monitors and party agents at the polling stations instills confidence, deters electoral malpractices and promotes transparency in the electoral process.
Comprehensive deployment of party agents is key in gathering evidence on any malpractices that may occur during the polling, counting and results tabulation and transmission processes. Throughout the polling and counting process, the ECZ staff conducted themselves professionally and facilitated the work of monitors, party agents as well as observers to perform their oversight role at polling stations unhindered, including at polling stations that were located inside prisons.
Civil society plays a key role in the electoral process and they should never be viewed as competitors by the EMB, but as stakeholders that can complement the work of the EMB, thereby instilling confidence in electoral processes.
Engagement meetings between the EMB and civil society are key to enhance transparency and accountability. The ECZ missed an opportunity to strengthen relationships with key electoral stakeholders by not investing in sustained engagement and discussions on the issues raised by stakeholders at critical junctures, such as those relating to the issuance of National Registration Cards, the discarding of the voters’ roll, which was used in 2016, voter registration rates that were inconsistent with the national average, and which in some constituencies were actually lower than those recorded in the voter registration exercise for the 2016 elections.
From what Zesn was able to establish, all domestic elections observers were accredited as per the different organisations’ requests. Nevertheless, the accreditation requirements and process for the 2021 general elections was both cumbersome and expensive in comparison to the process that was in place for the previous general elections. EMBs should facilitate smooth observer accreditation processes as observers provide valuable oversight of electoral processes.
Elections observation provides the basis for making recommendations on how electoral processes and the legal framework for elections can be improved.
In his statement on the Zambia elections, the Zesn chairperson, Andrew Makoni, said that the transition demonstrated by Zambia was a rare feat on the African continent and a clear demonstration of political maturity.
“Democracy in Africa will be richer if all outgoing leaders emulate the Zambian example”, he added. The 2021 general elections witnessed the peaceful shifting of power from a ruling party to the opposition for the third time since 1964.
- This article was co-authored by Dingani and Goredema who both work for the Zesn and observed the recent Zambian elections. The article expresses the views of the organisation that they work for and not the respective observer. missions that they were a part of.