On Thursday, August 12th, Zambians went to the polls to elect the country’s next president and the members of the National Assembly. President Edgar Lungu ran for reelection against opposition party leader, Hakainde Hichilema, in a campaign that featured rising levels of political violence and intimidation, unusual for a country that had been consolidating democratic rule since the 1990s.
In the week prior to the election, we brought together a panel of three political scientists with expertise in the country to discuss with us this critical moment for Zambia:
Q: Like many other aspects of daily life, the pandemic has played a significant role in the elections that have taken place around the world in the past eighteen months. Dr. Kaaba, how has the pandemic affected the political conditions and electoral campaigning in the lead up to the election in Zambia?
O’Brien Kaaba: Zambia’s democracy was in decline before the pandemic. Civic space was shrinking. Civil society and the opposition were continually persecuted. The COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity to further shrink the political space which was already under heavy assault. The government and the ruling party, with the support of a compromised police service and electoral commission have used the COVID-19 pandemic to further restrict meetings, while allowing the ruling party monopoly to freely campaign.
Q: According to various human rights organizations, political violence and intimidation have been on the rise in Zambia, particularly as the election draws near. Professor Baldwin, could you explain some of the key dynamics of the current political environment?
There has also been significant violence between supporters of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) and the UPND. Although the government has blamed the opposition for the violence, the CCMG report suggests the violence is more often instigated by the ruling party. In response, the president has taken the unprecedented step of calling in the army to “curb the political violence”, sending armored vehicles into many urban communities.
As a result, Zambians are currently very fearful of election violence, more afraid than one might expect given that the country has not experienced large-scale violence in past elections. Recent research by Professor Michael Wahman at Michigan State University shows that Zambians fear political violence about as much as their neighbors in Zimbabwe, with fear highest for opposition supporters.
Q: According to V-Dem, following two decades of increasing democratic governance, Zambia has in the past five years experienced democratic backsliding. How has this decline in democratic governance affected citizens’ views of the upcoming election and the incumbent candidate?
Kate Baldwin: The current government has challenged many democratic norms, including allowing Lungu to run for a third term and trying to reduce checks on the president’s power. I have been conducting research on whether the government’s anti-democratic actions are likely to reduce support for the ruling party in collaboration with the Program on Governance and Local Development at Gothenburg University.
Part of this research examines the extent to which Zambians punish anti-democratic positions when asked to evaluate hypothetical candidates. The good news for democracy is that Zambians severely punish candidates who take anti-democratic positions, more so than Americans do when presented with similar scenarios. The bad news is that the size of the anti-democratic penalty has dropped as the election has neared. Furthermore, although Zambians can clearly identify many of the policy stances that the government has taken as anti-democratic when asked to consider hypothetical scenarios, when it comes to real-life evaluations, democratic commitment is viewed with a highly partisan lens; opposition and government supporters both rate their own party as highly committed to democracy and the other party as relatively less committed. As a result, I am not confident that the high value Zambians place on democracy will translate into lower support for the ruling party in the coming election.
Ken Opalo: Even before Lungu’s tenure, executive-legislative relations in Zambia favored the president. The president has wide-ranging de facto powers and significant influence over other branches of government. The president can dissolve parliament and trigger fresh elections and may nominate up to eight of its members. Executive dominance over the legislature is reinforced by the internal workings of the National Assembly. Like in several other legislatures influenced by the Westminster system, the Standing Orders of the Zambian National Assembly and established institutional habits afford (minority) opposition politicians little control over the affairs of the legislature. Therefore, President Lungu, through the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) has largely dominated the legislature. PF has 89 out of 156 seats in the outgoing parliament. In addition, Zambian political parties (and especially ruling parties) have historically enforced party discipline via threats of expulsion from parliament. According to Article 72 of the Zambian constitution, a legislator loses their seat upon expulsion from the party that sponsored their election. This reality has enabled the PF to pass a number of controversial bills designed to expand executive powers. Despite these structural disadvantages vis-a-vis the executive branch, the National Assembly has, on occasion, stood up to the president — most recently by rejecting planned constitutional amendments that would have expanded presidential powers.
Q: What have been some distinct features of the current Zambian party system and the coalition that President Lungu has managed to bring together?
Ken Opalo: Zambia’s institutional architecture provides for a winner-take-all system at the presidential, legislative, and local government levels. Consequently, Zambia’s political scene has historically been characterized by a stable party system dominated by the ruling party. Between 1991 and 2011, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) dominated the scene. After the Patriotic Front’s insurgent 2011 campaign victory, the party essentially replaced the MMD in its strongholds in urban areas, the Copperbelt, Northern, and Eastern parts of the country. Longtime opposition party the United Party for National Development (UPND) has historically been dominant in the Southern and Southwestern parts of Zambia. One potential consequence of the Lungu era might be a reorganization of the electoral map and the party system. Zambia’s faltering economy and increasing autocratic tendencies under Lungu have eroded the party’s support in urban areas and its northern heartland. It is telling that both leading candidates, Lungu and Hakainde Hichilema, have selected running mates from Muchinga and neighboring Northern Provinces, respectively.
Q: How do you see the trajectory of electoral politics in Zambia moving forward and what role will this election play in that respect?
O’Brien Kaaba: If the ruling party wins, Zambia will most likely continue on the autocratic pathway. Considering that Lungu, the incumbent, won a third term through a dubious interpretation of the constitution by the Constitutional Court, there is a real risk that the President may now wish to remove term limits entirely from the constitution and be in league with the likes of Museveni and Mugabe. If the opposition wins, that may provide an opportunity for the country to reset. However, reclaiming the country’s democratic credentials will not be automatic. It will require concerted efforts from civil society, cooperating partners, the academic world and others to impress upon the new government to undertake serious reforms.
Ken Opalo: Being the known incumbent with a track record, Lungu has revealed autocratic tendencies that are likely to persist in his second term should he win reelection. However, if one looks beyond the personalities of the two main presidential candidates, Zambia’s journey towards greater democratic consolidation will likely continue to falter unless there are far-reaching constitutional reforms to constrain executive power, affirm judicial and legislative independence, and create meaningful opportunities for opposition parties to exercise executive power at the subnational level.
Kate Baldwin: I am concerned with the flouting of norms that have supported Zambia’s democratic progress to date; Dr. O’Brien Kaaba has already mentioned the issue of term limits. In addition, the Zambian military has historically stayed out of politics. These are not norms that can easily be reestablished, regardless of who wins the election.