Zambia’s 2016 Elections: Democracy Hovering On The Precipice

When Rupiah Banda conceded defeat to Michael Sata in Zambia’s 2011 elections, many commentators hailed the peaceful transfer of power as a sign that the country’s democracy had matured. Twenty years after ousting the United National Independence Party (UNIP) in the historic 1991 multi-party elections, the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) lost to Sata’s urban-based and populist Patriotic Front (PF).

Five years later, the country is preparing to go to the polls again on August 11 to vote on a president, parliamentarians, mayors and a referendum on the Bill of Rights. This time, the entire party system is in flux and electoral violence has been worryingly frequent and extreme. As a consequence, Zambia’s democratic credentials are increasingly in doubt.

The 2016 elections therefore represent a critical point in Zambia’s political history. They could herald a complete rupture of the existing party system and a worrying slide towards a competitive authoritarian regime. But they could also simply reflect a minor detour on the country’s road towards democratic consolidation.

The latter scenario has not been uncommon in Zambia’s history. After the end of Kenneth Kaunda’s almost 30-year presidency (1964-1991), the initial euphoria surrounding the MMD’s victory was squandered by President Frederick Chiluba. The mid-1990s were characterised by increased repression of the opposition and political rights, culminating in 2001 with Chiluba’s failed attempt to change the constitution to run for a third term in office. Although his MMD successor, Levy Mwanawasa, ultimately won the 2001 elections, albeit by very low margins, that period represented a critical juncture in the country’s party system. Defections of disillusioned MMD politicians resulted in the creation of key political parties, including the United Party for National Development (UPND) and the PF.

Today, much is at stake for Zambian citizens who have seen four elections in less than ten years due to two presidential deaths in 2008 and 2014. Whoever wins, most Zambians will be just looking forward to a president who can serve out the five year term and proceed with the business of governing and delivering services rather than divisive campaigning.

Unexpected Trajectory

Zambia’s current unexpected trajectory can be traced to the death of Sata in October 2014. This led the PF to descend into a tumultuous succession battle between two factions. One, labelled “the Cartel”, included long-time PF stalwarts who helped build the party. They included Sata’s vice president, Guy Scott, former party general secretary Wynter Kabimba, former party spokesperson George Challah and the editor-in-chief of The Post newspaper, Fred M’membe.

In the second group were those who became increasingly close to Sata during his period of illness. They included former defence minister Edgar Lungu and finance minister Alexander Chikwanda. Ultimately, Lungu was selected by the party to contest the January 2015 elections and is again the PF’s candidate this year.

Lungu’s most significant opposition opponent is Hakainde Hichilema. The leader of the UPND is poised to contest the elections for the fifth time. Seven additional parties were registered in time to field presidential candidates. Amazingly, this is the first time in more than 20 years that the MMD will not be competing for president. This is due to squabbles between two politicians, Nevers Mumba and Felix Mutati, over who legitimately leads the party.

The PF will be hoping to win over voters by emphasising its large-scale road construction and rehabilitation projects. The party can as well point to the fact that it oversaw the passing of a much demanded new constitution earlier this year. The latter is an achievement that long eluded the MMD.

At the same time, it will be hoping to sidestep scrutiny of its management of the economy. This has been marked by persistent power shortages and worryingly high debt levels. While Zambia’s elections are usually held in September or October, they were moved earlier this year ahead of an anticipated deal with the International Monetary Fund. Any ensuing austerity would be felt after the elections.

Unequal Playing Field

However, the ruling party is not leaving anything to chance and has brazenly created an unequal playing field for its opponents. The only genuine opposition newspaper, The Post, was shut down in June. The newspaper had been instrumental in Sata’s rise but became increasingly anti-PF when the party entered office. Its closure was ostensibly over unpaid taxes but many have pointed out that pro-government newspapers were also in arrears but continued to operate.

Despite more competitive bids from South African companies, the Electoral Commission for Zambia (ECZ) chose a Dubai-based firm to print the election ballots. This has led to speculation over potential vote rigging. Moreover, attempts by the UPND to campaign have been repeatedly blocked, both through the courts and with the use of PF cadres.

Indeed, electoral violence has been worryingly high this year compared with past elections. Based on media reports recorded by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project, there have been more than 50 incidents of electoral violence in Zambia between January and July 2016. Many resulted in severe injuries or the death of party supporters. The violence became so extreme that the electoral commission suspended campaigning in Lusaka for 10 days and President Lungu called for a national day of prayer on July 25 for peaceful elections.

Why The Violence Has Spiked

Why have these elections been particularly violent? One reason is the significant new constitutional requirement for the winning presidential contender to win by an absolute, not just a simple, majority. In 2015, Lungu beat Hichilema with less than two percent of the vote – 48% against 46.6%. Since then, mine closures in the populous and traditional PF-stronghold of the Copperbelt have undermined confidence in the ruling party and may generate enough swing voters to give Hichilema the majority that he needs.

Secondly, Sata’s leadership style contributed to a high level of PF infighting and suspicion, with many defections as result. Sata’s populism resonated with the poor and underprivileged and contributed to his victory in 2011. But like populist leaders elsewhere, he built the party around his personal image and marginalised anyone seen to disagree with him or prove a potential successor.

He also manipulated the rules for the PF’s gain. Notable examples included the enticement of opposition MPs, especially those from the crumbling MMD, to defect to the PF to help secure the party a parliamentary majority. He also used the Public Order Act to prevent the opposition from holding rallies or meetings.

In the year since Lungu’s election, a number of prominent PF politicians have joined the UPND. These include Guy Scott, Sata’s son and wife, and another former PF minister, Geoffrey Mwamba, who is now Hichilema’s running mate. This makes the UPND not just a formidable opposition competitor but also the refuge for those who posed a threat to Lungu’s faction within the PF and who fuelled Sata’s paranoia about potential successors.

If history is anything to go by, the current political tumult will subside after the elections and result in a new configuration of political parties. And if some key provisions in the new constitution are indeed upheld, including preventing sitting MPs from switching party affiliations without losing their seats, then Zambia’s repeated pattern of democratic backsliding and party fissures may hopefully become less pronounced over time.