By Alastair Fraser
After the deaths of two serving Presidents, Levy Mwanawasa in 2008 and Michael Sata in 2014, Zambians have been to the polls five times in the last decade. Their most recent visit, on 11 August, involved a complex series of elections under new constitutional rules including the requirement that the winner secure more than 50% of the vote, even if this necessitated a second round run-off. Voters were offered five separate ballot papers to choose a President, MPs, mayors/council chairpersons, councillors and finally to vote in a referendum on further amendments to the constitution and the introduction of a Bill of Rights. The counting was supposed to take two days. A fortnight later, the Electoral Commission has almost finished posting preliminary results on its website.
The ruling Patriotic Front (PF) won the National Assembly and local government elections comfortably. Turnout was too low for the referendum to pass, even though a majority of those who voted approved. Still, we are no closer to knowing who the next President will be. The incumbent, Edgar Lungu, very narrowly cleared the 50% hurdle in the first round. But the poll has sparked a petition to the (new) Constitutional Court. The opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) claim the results have been rigged and also object to bias in the public media and the ways in which the Public Order Act was deployed throughout the campaign to frustrate their mobilisation.
Previous Zambian election petitions have gone nowhere. A ruling is expected on 1 September on whether the incumbent is allowed to stay in office during the case, or must stand down in favour of the Speaker. Debates on this question, and whether the President elect ought to have been sworn in (he hasn’t been) have been complicated by playing the game under unfamiliar rules, and by the fact that a typo in the numbering of clauses and poor drafting in the new Constitutional text were not picked up before the election. The Court will start hearings on the election petition itself on Friday 2 September. Given that it is supposed to rule within a fourteen days of the petition’s submission (two weeks ago on Friday) arguments might well rumble on beyond, not least on what constitutes fourteen days . Whatever happens, these very tight elections will not generate a government able to command widespread acceptance of its legitimacy.
Both before and since the elections, profound political polarization has generated unusually open ethnic tensions and serious political violence that are not unprecedented, but which Zambians hoped they would not see again. The Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) was forced to suspend campaigning in Lusaka Province for 10 days because of the violence. The most influential private newspaper was closed down (formally by the revenue authority) before the election and the most influential private television station has been closed down (for threatening national security through false reporting) since, armed police walking into the studio in the middle of the 7 pm news to force the channel off the air. Since the election, political retribution has been meted out, including an arson attack on the offices of the opposition party on the Copperbelt, and nine villages in Southern Province being allegedly ‘ethnically cleansed’ by opposition supporters.
It is not obvious how we got to today’s miserable position. Nonetheless, a few preliminary observations can be made.
- Understanding democracy as a bundle of institutional arrangements is rather simplistic. This is not a novel thought! In comparison to its neighbours, which include the DRC, Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, Zambia has been seen as a haven of peace and democracy, especially since passing the infamous two turnover test in 2011 (the notoriously unhelpful ‘two turnover test’ assumes that, after an authoritarian government has been voted out of office, and then its replacement also democratically removed, democracy has in some sense been consolidated). It has willingly subjected itself to constant processes of externally-supported institution-building, measuring and monitoring, and has undergone a halting process of constitutional reform. All of which was supposed to make this kind of thing unthinkable. It is not only foreign donors who have obsessed on institutions. The opposition also majored on good governance, to the exclusion of presenting a substantive political programme . Without mobilized social movements making demands on the state, without mass-membership political parties which represent substantive political interests and projects, without citizens excited by a belief in the possibility of transforming the country, gains in formal rights – to free association, to freedom of expression – are easily pushed aside.
- Still, Zambian democracy remains a comparatively level playing field. The two ruling parties that controlled the country from independence in 1964 to multi-partyism in 1991 (Kenneth Kaunda’s UNIP), and which then ruled from 1991 to 2011 (the MMD under Frederick Chiluba, Levy Mwanawasa and Rupiah Banda respectively) were consigned to the dustbin of history pretty much as soon as they lost power. In a sense, fairness breeds competitiveness which breeds insecurity. Parties have a sense of their own mortality. While most Zambian politicians have recycled themselves, crossing the floor between parties as their fortunes rise and fall, at least in the short term, there is plenty at stake, since control of the state remains important in elite strategies of accumulation.
- The stakes are low for most citizens. In contrast to other parts of the world that have seen increasing political polarization since the global financial crisis, there is little that divides the parties programmatically. Zambia saw a populist/technocratic stand-off in the 2006 elections. However, that populism was so associated with the person of PF founder Michael Sata that it faded and disappeared as he ailed in 2008 and died in 2014. The PF now has very little to do with the personnel or agenda of the party in 2006. Voter turnout fell off a cliff after 2006. Most citizens’ main interest is in avoiding the violence unleashed by cadres hired to give the impression that the parties enjoy energetic popular support.
- Identity politics makes partisanship and violence worse. In the absence of contestation over competing political visions, identity politics has come to the fore. This is also partly driven by the structure of the party system. The 2015 Presidential by-election was the first in Zambia’s post-‘91 era to boil competition down to just two main parties, and also divided the country geographically down an uncharacteristically clear line, commonly (if somewhat crudely) read as reflecting a UPND Tonga/Lozi alliance in the South and West, and a PF Bemba/Nyanja alliance in the North and East. The two main competitors were the same this time; the ruling PF, led by an Easterner, President Edgar Lungu, and the opposition UPND led by a Southerner, Hakainde Hichilema. To try to end the run of by-elections caused by Presidential deaths, a constitutional amendment now allows for the Vice-President to complete a deceased President’s term, and Zambians voted for the first time for a President/Vice-Presidential ticket. Both candidates chose running mates they imagined could reach across the divide, characters closely associated with rural regions in which the respective parties had performed poorly in 2015, and with a perceived proximity to traditional authorities. As Sishuwa Sishuwa predicted , this strategy had strikingly little success and the 2015 geographical pattern was closely reproduced, with each party winning super-majorities in ‘their’ rural Provinces and the PF winning overall because it continued to dominate the urban vote where the UPND had hoped to make progress on the back of disappointment with the PF’s failure to generate the jobs that Sata had promised.
- The political atmosphere has become more and more intemperate since 2006. After the shock of the Patriotic Front’s populist surge in 2006, during which Michal Sata brought the angry, excluded Zambian urban poor onto the political stage and excoriated the country’s political and economic elite, the incumbent MMD became tremendously insecure. When the PF won power in 2011, it delivered none of its promise to overturn elitism but populism and the paranoid response to it has poisoned the political culture. Hyper-partisanship has overwhelmed many once proudly non-partisan civil society organisations, churches, traditional authorities and civil servants . Where once, in a national crisis, these groups, led by the Churches, might have stepped up to mediate or organize processes of reconciliation, almost no organization currently holds any status as a trusted neutral intermediary.
- Rumour mongering has become a national pastime. Even when organizations honestly try to take on non-partisan positions, but comment on public issues, a culture of smearing dominates. Intra-elite rivalries generate new conspiracy theories that are joyously reproduced by a tabloid culture in public and private media. Partisans throw stories into the public sphere with little fear that a revelation that they are lying will do more damage to them than their target. Mirroring Stephen Ellis’ argument that a reliance on ‘pavement radio’ in the era of one-party media gave Africans an unusually well attuned bullshit detector, Wendy Willems has suggested that, during the 2016 election, Zambians navigated rumour and counter-rumour effectively through the wide range of available social media and new independent media sources . I am not so sure. Of course it is very difficult to assess whether overwhelming public cynicism is grounded in reality or myth, but it seems clear that there is less and less public trust in any public institution. It might be wise to doubt the neutrality of the judiciary, including a new Constitutional Court, the Electoral Commission, or the security wings of the state but the results also include cynicism about all public life, low voter turnout, and a sense of outrage which lends moral cover to purges and to the violence of gangs of hired party cadres.
- Things might get better. As a result of the two-horse race, and the heavy concentration of the opposition vote in three of the country’s ten Provinces, the Patriotic Front has won a commanding majority in Parliament – the first time this has been achieved without an opposition boycott since the re-introduction of multiparty elections in 1991. On that basis, we might expect some reduction in the frequency of elections, and thus political tensions. Apart from three General Elections and two additional Presidential By-elections in the last decade, the difficulties that ruling parties have faced in getting legislation through minority parliaments has led to a never-ending process of bribing opposition legislators to cross the floor, triggering constant by-elections. With fixed parliaments in place, we might now see a five year gap until the next round… Unless the Presidential petition succeeds (surprising), and either the UPND wins the Presidency in a second round (unlikely), or the court bars the PF from running in the run-off (unthinkable), in which case things might get really ugly.
- The next administration faces a grim economic context. The difficulties that the PF had delivering on any of their economic promises lie behind some improvement in the UPND’s urban vote. The way in which Zambia’s energy infrastructure has been designed to favour its privatized mines combined soon after the PF took power with a drought that starved the country’s hydro power plants. This led to massive load-shedding and hikes in prices of electricity. Partly as a result of a halving of the global copper price since the party took power, and resulting job losses on the Copperbelt, the PF has overseen an economic crisis during which the Kwacha lost half its value in 2015. President Lungu’s response was to organize a national day of prayer for the currency. Ironically the party then ran its election under the slogan ‘Sontapo’ – ‘We can point to this!’, suggesting that the party had delivered its promises. All the PF could really point to was that they had amended the Constitution and had built a lot of roads (they have built a lot of roads, and this is no mean achievement, opening up huge areas of the vast, land-locked country). However, those roads were largely built by borrowing US$3 billion on bond markets, with the result that, a decade after its massive HIPC debt relief, Zambia is again seriously indebted and the new administration will turn to the IMF for a loan conditioned particularly on agricultural and fuel subsidy cuts. Just as soon as we know who won the election we will know who has the job of explaining that to the voters.
Alastair is a lecturer in African politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and a member of the Editorial Working Group of the Review of African Political Economy.
Featured Photograph: Hakainde Hichilema’s UPND election parade in Choma.