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Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Elusive Quest for Free Elections

An important editiorial from The Post on how the ruling party has used state machinery in the last elections. It also points to the alleged practices of transnational companies "given all sorts of government favours in return for contributions to the MMD’s election campaigns". It is a timely article and one which should help us consider broadly the meaning of the word "free" - what does it mean to have a genuine free election?

Simply permitting the opposition access to the ballot box is not enough for us to have elections we can say are free and fair. Elections in which the ruling party has almost unlimited access to and use of state resources to the exclusion of the opposition cannot be said to be free and fair.

The party in power may enjoy the advantages of incumbency but the rules and conduct of the election contest must be fair. Those in power have to arrange things in a manner that does not put those in the opposition at an unfair disadvantage. There ought to be transparency, accountability and fairness in the use of public resources. All parties should as far as possible have equal access to public resources, including equal access to the publicly owned media; and the publicly owned media should be compelled to report political campaigns fairly and accurately.

And looking at things this way, it is easy to see why Partner Siabutuba, the board chairman of Civil Society for Poverty Reduction, is calling for strict monitoring of the use of public funds by the ruling MMD and ensure that such funds are not abused. This call is not without basis. We have a history of ruling parties abusing their incumbency. We have many cases of the ruling party abusing public funds and resources for its election campaigns. In the petition against the 2001 election of Levy Mwanawasa as president of the Republic, people who were in charge of the ruling MMD’s campaign went to court and showed that public resources were abused to have him elected. And those who gave evidence were the ones behind the abuses. Of course, why they did this is simply because they had differed with Levy, who had allowed their prosecutions for corruption. So they were hitting back at him in anger. But what they were saying was true. It is not a secret that in 2001, Kashiwa Bulaya, as permanent secretary at the Ministry of Health, facilitated the abuse of that ministry’s funds to finance Levy’s campaign. Automobiles were removed from that ministry and given to Levy’s campaign. Money also moved in the same way. We also saw similar abuses of the Ministry of Health automobiles in Rupiah Banda’s 2008 election campaign. This newspaper carried pictures of Rupiah’s image builders being ferried around the country by Ministry of Health automobiles. We also carried pictures showing Rupiah distributing sugar and mealie-meal at election campaign meetings in Katete. This sugar and mealie-meal came from government stores, bought with public funds.

There was also abuse of government aircraft to ferry Rupiah’s friends who were helping him campaign. The state-owned media was totally hijacked by Rupiah for his campaign, to the exclusion of the opposition. To this very day, the state-owned media is still part of Rupiah’s campaign propaganda machinery. The state-owned media behaves and conducts its business as if it is owned by the ruling MMD. There is no meaningful coverage of the opposition in that media. This is not new. In 1991, UNIP behaved the same way until a court order was obtained by the Press Association of Zambia to stop it from abusing the publicly owned media and had its cadre editors removed. Probably the opposition should consider doing that today because the MMD has no right to use the state-owned media as though it were its private property. They may need to assert their right to equal access to this media.

Parastatal companies like Zesco, NAPSA, the Food Reserve Agency, among others, are still being abused by the ruling MMD for its election campaigns. It was not by accident that the other week the Food Reserve Agency donated K5 million to the MMD. And the MMD only returned that money when the opposition Patriotic Front threatened to take legal action. If there was no such threat, that money would have gone to MMD’s campaign. Money is being skimmed from parastatals and other quasi-governmental organisations by the MMD in all sorts of ways. Government-funded institutions are giving money to MMD cadres who they know very well will not be able to pay back. And they are not demanding any collateral in case of default. Contracts are also being given to party cadres who pay back some of the proceeds to the party and its key leaders. Even transnational corporations are given all sorts of government favours in return for contributions to the MMD’s election campaigns. Those who show inclinations to funding the opposition are ostracised and excluded from government business. Everyone is being shown that it pays to work with or to support the MMD.

The story does not end here. Other government institutions are also made to serve the MMD’s election agenda. The police and other law enforcement agencies, including the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, are also put to the MMD service. They are made to harass the opposition and its cadres while allowing MMD cadres to go scot-free with all sorts of transgressions. The list of such abuses is almost endless. This is not good for the country, its politics and democracy in general. In the long run, abuses of this nature by the ruling party can undermine public trust and threaten the viability of our democratic endeavours. While anti-corruption laws are important in the fight against abuses of this nature, they need to be embedded in a broader strategy that promotes intra-party democracy, party competition, transparency and monitoring by an informed public and an active civil society. While corrupt political parties can thus stall or even destroy processes of democratisation, political parties that are not distorted by corruption, but which are part of a well-institutionalised and competitive political framework can play a vital role in our democratic endeavours and perform valuable political and social functions. And everything possible should be done to combat abuses of this nature if we are to harbour any hope of governing ourselves in a manner that is fair and just, and of holding elections whose results truly reflect the wishes of the voters. It is necessary to remind all our political parties, including the ruling MMD, that politics and the elections that accompany it are for the good of the people and the country, and not for the political survival of any individual or political party. If the spirit of the primacy of the common good were to animate all our political parties, we would not witness such abuses of public resources by the ruling party, its leaders and cadres which leave the public dismayed and disheartened.

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