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Zambia’s flawed election: lessons for autocrats, democrats, observers and investors

Posted By on September 5, 2016 @ 12:30

Image courtesy of Flickr user michael_swan.

Hakainde Hichilema, the presidential candidate of the Zambian Opposition, says that international observers have been ‘absolutely useless’ in supporting the democratic process in the Central African country.

‘HH’, as he’s widely referred to, knows better than most following Zambia’s disputed election on 11 August, won (officially at least) [1] by his main rival, President Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front party with 50.35% to Hichilema’s 47.67%.

HH’s United Party for National Development (UPND) is now challenging the outcome in the courts.

What’s emerging from Zambia’s and other African elections, including that held in February in Uganda, is a winning template for incumbents: close down the democratic space, run interference, misuse state resources, control the diet of information, and if necessary, don’t let the numbers stand in your way.

Those events demonstrate that holding elections are by themselves insufficient to claim a democracy. Indeed, they may, in and of themselves, reinforce authoritarianism if they permit the subjugation of democratic process through electoral fraud.

In the case of Zambia’s recent election, despite the proclamations of a successful process by international observer teams, freedom of speech wasn’t upheld. The main opposition newspapers were effectively closed down. The International Press Institute found that the hindering of opposition media cast a ‘shadow’ [2] over Zambia’s democracy.

The state Zambia National Broadcasting Service refused to air [3] favourable opposition coverage, including Hichilema’s UPND political campaign documentary, until ordered to do so by the High Court days before the election.

The government also continuously stonewalled [4] Opposition attempts to hold rallies ostensibly under the Public Order Act, forcing a routine of energy- and resource-sapping court actions by the UPND. When it came to the misuse of state resources, government ministers illegally—so the Constitutional Court found [5] in the week before the election—held onto public office and the salaries, transport and other perks that went with them.

Then there were events around the election itself.

The UPND has alleged binned ballots [6], widespread intimidation, tampered results and systematic bias in counting. It claims that ‘Gen 12’ forms—those that certified the outcome of the count at every polling station with agents and representatives from all parties present signing—were withheld from UPND agents, so that they weren’t able to verify the results. They claim this enabled [4] the PF to fiddle with the numbers, especially in the capital Lusaka where nearly one in six of registered voters resided.

In essence, the UPND asserts [7] that through manipulation and fraud, the ruling Patriotic Front party ‘effected a coup on Zambia’s democratic process’.

Various international observer teams found the voting and counting process, in the words of the Commonwealth report, ‘credible and transparent’ [8]. The 120-strong European Union Election Observation Mission said ‘voting was peaceful and generally well administered’ despite being ‘marred by systematic bias in the state media and restrictions on the campaign’.  More than 250 more observers attended, drawn from the US-based Carter Centre, the African Union, the Southern African Development Community and the Zambian Christian Churches, among others.

Was that enough? Or were these groups there simply to legitimise the result? After all, there were 7,700 polling stations across 156 constituencies, in a territory bigger than France.

No doubt the UPND will exhaust every legal avenue, but this contentious outcome is hardly cause for encouragement for African democrats, who can’t rely on international observers. After all, their primary aim is to prevent widespread violence and ensure a process of vague credibility which reflects well enough on them.

The advice to oppositions in the circumstances is that they have to ‘win big’ if they are to counter government fiddling. That’s easier said than done when so much is stacked against them. Without hope of a free and fair process subject to review, oppositions may well abandon democracy when they realise that violence may be their avenue to protest a stolen election.

The Constitutional Court will now hear the case within 14 days and determine whether to annul the 11 August poll. If they rule in the UPND’s favour then fresh elections will be held within 30 days. The UPND only has to prove a discrepancy of around 13,000 votes to force the election to a second round—the margin by which Lungu exceeded 50% among the 3.78-million valid votes eventually cast.

Still, the UPND is unlikely to be successful, no matter the validity of its case, since the Constitutional Court is stacked with Lungu appointees. For all of the market hyperbole and self-satisfied diplomatic backslapping greeting the PF’s victory, such a judicial ‘process’ alone should make investors wary.

There are moreover real concerns over the way forward, not least in growing the economy. With the PF government having tripled national debt in just five years to $10 billion and incessantly changed mining tax policy to the detriment of the country’s most important earner, the country is not only broke, but split down the middle between the two main parties, the east dominated by the PF, the west by the UPND. Indeed, in the aftermath of the election, Transparency International Zambia [9] warned the government of the consequences of stoking ethnic tensions through state-controlled media. It would be tempting for international observers and outside governments—like investors—to believe that their interests are best served in such fractious circumstances by doing nothing—a cliché-ridden policy choice of ‘keeping your head down’, ‘not rocking the boat’, ‘letting them get on with things’, and ‘waiting and seeing’.

Those engaged with Zambia, politically and commercially, should make it clear that failure to stop the current nonsense will affect cooperation on a wide front, including investment. The country’s history of nationalisation, along with relentless and radical changes to policy and tax regimes, suggest that to do otherwise isn’t a strategy for survival, let alone success.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/zambias-flawed-election-lessons-autocrats-democrats-observers-investors/

URLs in this post:

[1] won (officially at least): https://www.elections.org.zm/general_election_2016.php

[2] cast a ‘shadow’: http://www.freemedia.at/IPIMain/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/2016-IPI-AMI-Zambia-Press-Freedom-Mission-Report-Final.pdf

[3] refused to air: http://zambiareports.com/2016/07/12/znbc-right-to-reject-unethical-upnd-adverts/

[4] continuously stonewalled: http://africanarguments.org/2016/08/17/zambias-disputed-elections-on-binned-ballots-and-systematic-bias/

[5] so the Constitutional Court found: https://www.lusakatimes.com/2016/08/08/constitutional-court-orders-ministers-vacate-offices/

[6] alleged binned ballots: https://www.lusakatimes.com/2016/08/12/hh-accuse-ecz-colluding-pf-alter-2016-general-election-results/

[7] , the UPND asserts: http://zambianeye.com/archives/50784

[8] ‘credible and transparent’: http://thecommonwealth.org/media/news/zambia-general-elections-2016-observer-group-interim-statement#sthash.sswQUDgc.dpuf; and http://eeas.europa.eu/statements-eeas/2016/160816_01_en.htm

[9] Transparency International Zambia: http://www.postzambia.com/news.php?id=19805#sthash.18sU8N2E.WDprE6T7.dpuf

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