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Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Notes from ZBTR Interview (Part 2) : Political Congregation

Another interesting comment was raised by Dr Elliott Munsanje  :

The number of political parties we have in Zambia are too many. We should limit these parties to three. The people who started this democracy did not envisage having too many parties. What is your view on how can we fight to have only three parties?
As it turns out this is quite a popular view among many people and therefore it shouldn't be dismissed. I believe one of the reasons that drives this question is the current despondence with regards to the present political outworking. Many people believe the plethrora of political parties only serves to strengthen the ruling party and does nothing to offer people "genuine choice". Put differently, the small parties are allegedly
sponsored by the party in government to confuse the masses. So the best way to get around this, it is argued, is to limit the number of parties.  Regular readers will know I don't share this view for many reasons, but for brevity two would do for now.

First, the approach assumes assumes Zambians are foolish enough not to be able to distinguish a good party able to act in their best interests from a bad one, so they need to be helped by limiting the number of parties they can chose. In other words it would be easier for ordinary Zambians to choose between two parties than it is to choose between 10 or 15 parties. I do not share this view. To understand why this view is so distorted, consider a scenario of where down the road there are thousands of grocery stores and now someone comes along and says, we must limit grocery stores because the consumer is incapable of deciding which one to use. The new ones which have opened keeps confusing them! Surely no one would accept that because we would concede not only that choice is good, but that consumers would be able able to tell a good grocery from a bad one. We might even go further and say, how condescending for someone to tell another how to shop! Yes, may be first time the locals may get shoping "wrong", but the next time and time after that they will build relationships with the store and they will come to trust it etc. Political parties are no different. They are like groceries selling different policies etc. The only difference is that you "buy" their policies every five years.  So if we think Zambians are generally rational when purchasing from a kantemba, we should also concede they are capable of buying properly from a good and well organised political party!

Second, it focuses on the symptom rather than the disease.  It should be immediately clear from the above discussion that the fundamental problem is not the amount of parties we have or the perceived failure of Zambians to choose properly. Those are symptoms of a larger disease. Fixing symptoms does not get us anywhere. The real disease in Zambia is that we do not have a system where the voter is genuinely king! All the problems spring from this. Citizens are not able to punish politicians. This is largely due to plethora of rigging, unfair incumbent advantage, poor electoral systems, absence of information on competing alternatives and so forth.  I am a strong believer in "voter sovereignty". Ultimately the voter knows best and given a competitive and conducive environment these choices would not look as foolish as some perceive. With this perspective, we can begin to debunk all other similar arguments e.g. lack of ideological differentiation. Which as argued there is simply a product of non-contestable electoral systems. So, far from increasing policy innovation, lack of competition  through restricting the number of parties would raise the barriers of entry into politics and reduce political innovation!

So to bring it all together, I would say we should support policies that increase choices and freedoms available to Zambians. If we find that something is not achieving what we expect, curtailing freedoms of congregation is usually not the answer. The answers lies in asking deeper questions regarding what is currently shaping the incentives of political players and voters.


  1. I agree with Dr. Munsanje. However, I suggest between 4 to 7 parties. We are a diversity country our unification does not go below 4 and our diversity does not go beyond 7. The paper I sent you explains were I am getting these numbers.

    BraDoc GP

  2. "The paper I sent you explains were I am getting these numbers."

    I am not aware of any paper.

  3. "The real disease in Zambia is that we do not have a system where the voter is genuinely king"

    The 'disease' is also attributable to a severe lack of genuine, policy-based, visionary leadership under which voters can rally support. The current plethora of parties is a result of selfishly ambitious individuals seeking power in government and its associated benefits for personal gain rather than truly standing and hoping for the chance to represent Zambians as president for the benefit of 'the voters'-Zambians.


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