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Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Does Zambia need more bye-elections?

Yes. According to this rather strange article via Lusaka Times. I have to say I disagree with nearly every point but thought it was worth sharing so that others see what Zambians are reading / writing elsewhere. If I am pressed I can debunk each and every point raised but I will leave it to the readers to reach their own conclusion :

Just this year Zambia has had several by-elections. Some came as a result of death of incumbents while some were necessitated by expulsions or resignations. In a few months’ time, another by-election will take place in Mporokoso, after the resignation of its MP, Maynard Misapa.

Several NGOs, some politicians, and a good number of candid citizens have condemned the number of by-elections that Zambia conducts each year. By-elections are condemned as expensive and in some cases as unnecessary. Most recently a prominent Zambian political party said the money used for by-elections, which runs in billions of kwacha, could be well used for other developmental projects. However, I wish to argue in this article that Zambia needs more by-elections as they have more benefits for our growing democracy.

First, by elections are needed as they help the nation get to know interior parts of the country. Much of our media in Zambia is mostly based in Lusaka and the Copperbelt. As such, the focus of all these newspapers, radio and television stations are undoubtedly Lusaka, the Copperbelt and surrounding areas. The only time at which other rural areas receive some amount of national publicity is when there is a by-election in those rural areas. Bring a by-election and suddenly we get to know about the needs of the people of far flung areas such as Mufumbwe, Luena, Kanchibiya and Mporokoso.

Second, by-elections help further the tenets of democracy in between the general elections. A Zambia which goes to polls only after five years would be a politically boring country. There would be no political creativity and political rising stars would be thwarted. For example, the UPND rose to political prominence as a result of by-elections during Chiluba’s second term. I will leave it up to other commentators to debate why from 1996 to 2001 so many MPs from Southern Province died. This death of mostly MMD parliamentarians led to the rise of Anderson Mazoka and his UPND as they swept each seat that the MMD dead incumbent left. While the causes of these deaths or the morality of these deaths is beyond this article, it suffices to mention that the UPND could not have discovered its genius without those particular by-elections. In terms of political science, the UPND should go into history as the party that has gained more seats in parliament through deaths of incumbents than any other party. It is quite ironic that the UPND’s rise under Hakainde Hichilema is also connected to winning by-elections especially in Northwestern Province necessitated by the deaths of MMD incumbents. These deaths include that of Ben Tetamashimba (Solwezi Central) and Misheck Bonshe (Mufumbwe).

Third, by-elections promote the spirit of national unity and bring about the feeling of national solidarity. Suddenly during a by-election, it is not just Lusaka or the Copperbelt that matters. As in the Luena by-election, all sorts of politicians converged on Mongu. These politicians from all walks of life and from all corners of the country travelled to show solidarity to their party and their candidates. This solidarity is basically non-existent during the general elections as most politicians get busy with their own constituencies.

Fourth, by-elections are good for the local economies. Politics is big business in Zambia. By average, apart from the billions that the Electoral Commission spends on the elections, political parties also pour in billions of kwacha. It may not be a lasting investment for a particular constituency, but at least for that particular moment, the elections provide the cash and several business opportunities. Bars sell more beers, restaurants cook more meals, and lodges fill up their beds. Even in if such a boom does not last long, it nevertheless brings temporary smiles on a few faces.

Fifth, by-elections bring the ruling party and indeed a sitting president closer to the people. By-elections also provide the opportunity to test the sitting president. If we had no by-elections, the only time a sitting president would be tested is at a general election. Five years is too long. At least with randomly occurring by-elections the president is forced out of the presidential helicopter to interact with real people in various constituencies. Such interactions usually result in some tangible government help. One example is Kabwe. It is no doubt that the creation of Mulungushi University was expedited during the Kabwe Central and Bwacha constituency by-elections. Equally during the Mufumbwe by-election the president and the government ministers were forced to camp in Mwinilunga and interact personally with the ordinary folks on the ground. Undoubtedly, the ECZ spends a lot of money on these by-elections. And truly some of them are unnecessary. But still the benefits that these by-elections have for our democracy, for our economy and for the political development of our country far outweigh any disadvantages. As such, Zambia should have more and not fewer by-elections. For now, the next buzz is taking place in Mporokoso. We could also meet in Mufumbwe again if the Supreme Court agrees with Judge Philip Musonda.

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