A common thread seems to run through the rise and fall of Zambia’s governing parties, from Kenneth Kaunda’s liberation juggernaut, the United National Independence Party (Unip), to the current Patriotic Front (PF) led by Edgar Lungu.
Having risen to the summit of political power after being elected, amid euphoric pomp and ceremony, these parties crumbled into political oblivion after being voted out.
Not only did this happen to Unip but also to its successor, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), led successively by Frederick Chiluba, Levy Mwanawasa and finally Rupiah Banda, before Michael Sata’s PF stole the limelight in 2011.
Today, it is astonishing that neither Unip nor the MMD are anywhere near their former glory. In last week’s presidential elections, their candidates managed to garner only a handful of votes, compared with their bigger PF and United Party for National Development (UPND) rivals.
Could there be similarities between Zambia’s electoral trends and those unfolding in South Africa, where the governing ANC suffered a heavy setback in the recent local government elections at the hands of smaller parties?
Could it be that, as in the case of its Zambian counterparts, the ANC’s political dominance is by no means perpetually guaranteed and that, unless it reinvents itself to become more relevant to the expectations of a more discerning and better informed electorate, its trajectory down the slippery slope to oblivion has already begun?
These questions recall a discussion with South African struggle veteran Albie Sachs, in Lusaka, when he recounted some of the key moments in his career as an activist and legal practitioner.
Together, we visited the modest red brick house at plot 250 Zambezi Road in Lusaka’s Roma suburb where, many years earlier, South African struggle heroes Ray Alexander and Jack Simons had plotted the downfall of the apartheid state.
Later, we visited the nondescript building that had once housed the ANC headquarters, sandwiched between buildings in a shabby service alleyway in downtown Lusaka, where as a much younger journalist I had frequently spoken to Tom Sabina, the ANC spokesperson.
“The support given by Zambia to the ANC was absolutely vital to the progress that we were able to make,” Sachs said.
“But crucial in Zambia was the fact that we had our headquarters here, we could have our leadership here, we could develop policies here, we could develop international relationships here, and we could have contact with the South African underground, even with Robben Island, from here. For me, coming back is a political pilgrimage with very deep emotion.”
Reflecting on that discussion, I was forced to consider that, although the ANC could be on a downward spiral, the political tradition within which it was birthed so many years ago is an enduring part of South Africa’s political landscape.
It has something to do with the fact that, in South Africa, the chance to vote came to mean so much to the majority of its citizens and was achieved at a heavy price in blood, sweat and tears.
Although the will of the people, expressed in genuine, periodic and credible elections, is a principle now enshrined in modern constitutions around the world, its realisation is often elusive.
Zambia holds regular democratic elections. But in contrast with South Africa – at least so far – those who control state institutions and resources, or organised means of bribery and intimidation, in that country all too often try to manipulate election processes.
They do this by denying opponents the right to stand for office, blocking them from organising themselves to campaign for votes, restricting their access to the media, preventing the electorate from gaining the knowledge needed to make informed political choices, intimidating voters from making free political choices, and gerrymandering election districts to deny equal suffrage.
When these tactics appear insufficient to ensure victory, the perpetrators of fraud often seek to manipulate election day processes by blocking access to polling stations, denying qualified voters the right to cast ballots, arranging for illegal voting in their favour, stuffing ballot boxes, manipulating vote counts, rigging vote tabulations, announcing fraudulent results and blocking proper legal redress.
Such tactics inevitably spawn violence and political retribution, as the rightful winners are prevented from assuming their elected office. Legitimately elected parties are denied their democratic mandate and the stage is set for political instability.
There is, according to the opposition, overwhelming evidence that all these abuses took place in last week’s “triple election” – for president, Parliament and local government – in Zambia. After the announcement of a PF victory and another term for Lungu, the country stands on the precipice of political turmoil.
The UPND has approached the Constitutional Court for redress but, like the Electoral Commission of Zambia, the court is another supposedly independent democratic institution that many Zambians do not trust.
Although many of the observer missions have yet to release their verdict on the poll, the European Union’s preliminary statement noted several violations that indicate that the electoral process was deeply compromised.
For instance, the EU said in its statement: “News coverage of the state broadcaster was biased in favour of the PF and largely excluded other parties, or only reported other parties negatively. Restrictions on private newspaper The Post constituted a serious infringement on freedom of expression during the campaign and severely limited opportunities for the opposition to access print media.
“Provisions and application of the Public Order Act unreasonably restricted freedom of assembly to the benefit of the ruling party, which also unduly benefited from its position as the incumbent party by misusing state resources for campaign purposes in contravention of the law, further contributing to an unlevel playing field.”
In the aftermath of the elections, events are unfolding fast amid widespread anxiety. There are reports of sporadic violence involving the burning of houses and property belonging to opposition members and supporters around the country, in most cases instigated and perpetrated by unruly governing party thugs.
The UPND has continued to call on its members not to retaliate but, if the attacks on its supporters continue to escalate, the relative political peace Zambia has enjoyed since independence is sure to break down.
As the UPND launches its petition against the verdict of last week’s polls, Lungu’s provisional replacement is the speaker of the National Assembly, Patrick Matibini, who will act as interim national leader.
If the issue is handled competently and professionally, the Constitutional Court has the capacity to save Zambia’s fragile peace. But if there is political bias, the country may degenerate into a lawless banana republic.
By comparison, the Electoral Commission of South Africa, which oversaw the recent local government polls, is almost universally seen by South Africans as competent, professional and free of party-political manipulation. Testimony of this is the ANC’s acceptance of the results, despite its humiliating losses.
And this is where the Electoral Commission of Zambia appears to have sold out the Zambian electorate, according to the evidence presented by the Zambian opposition.
amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.