Electoral reform is one of the key issues facing Zambia. We have long argued that for Zambia to develop it needs to devise systems that diminishes the role of leaders to act as rent seekers. Currently many of our leaders govern purely to enlarge their pockets. Until we introduce processes that prevent them from doing so we won’t see meaningful development. Related to that it needs institutions that allow ordinary Zambians to be able to kick out incompetent and shallow leaders. These requirements are best fulfilled through development of contestable and credible electoral arrangements. Until the electoral machinery is more contestable and leaders can be hired and fired easily, corruption and malpractice will continue unabated. It is therefore very important that not only do we continue to strive for a better voting system, but also ensure that that what ever system is in place, it is managed properly and without malpractice. For these reasons, we regard proposals in this as extremely vital.
What are the main specific policy proposals?
The main PF proposals in relation to electoral reforms are:
- Amend the Electoral Act (1996) to ensure members of the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) are appointed by Parliament and not the President; and, ECZ is representative of political parties in parliament.
- Political Party Registration: new legislation to allow for the registration of political parties with the ECZ and not the Registrar of Societies.
- Political Funding Reform: PF plans to “introduce legislation to allow for government financing of political parties with representation in parliament”.
There’s also a general commitment to “review the recommendations of the Electoral Reform Technical Committee and implement those recommendations which are progressive in achieving democratic elections”. However, this is too generic for our purposes.
What is the rationale?
The underlying problems identified by the PF can be divided between “primary” and “secondary problems” facing the ECZ. The primary problems relate to lack of independence and transparency. ECZ appears to be the mercy of significant influence and arm twisting by the Executive branch of government. It is alleged that the organisation is filled with MMD cadres largely due to the partisan appointments of members of the commission by the President who is an interested party in the presidential. There are also questions about the lack of transparency in the transmission of elections results from the counting centres to ECZ and poor and/or erroneous recording of results at the polling and collation centres.
To some extent these problems are part of the larger primary issue – that is the ECZ suffers from a credibility problem. This means that people do not have confidence in the electoral outcomes.
What is our main assessment?
The PF proposals score very well on identifying the main problem – which is lack of trust in the ECZ. It does not matter how effective or professional the organisation is running, if it has no credibility then the electoral process is ineffective and democracy is ultimately undermined. The key, as PF have noted to this issue is ensuring that ECZ has sufficient independence, which is not only practiced but seen to be practiced. It turns out for democracy to function ‘perception is everything’. The issue of transparency in reporting results is somewhat secondary and is more to do with how ECZ itself works – which should easy to resolve in the absence of political interference.
The proposed solutions represent a good start to addressing the identifying problems. There’s need to substantially review the Electoral Act. In particular, to guarantee that the Commissioners are chosen by Parliamentary Select Committee without reference to the President. It is also vital that the appropriate civil servant running the organisation gets the position through external competition. Cronyism and inertia appear to have clouded the ECZ. The proposal for ECZ to control political party registration is welcome and is in line with practice in other countries. However, it should be recognised that this does not mean the ECZ has become a regulator of political parties rather it should act as facilitator of political process working within existing law.
Unfortunately, these proposals do not go far enough. In particular, there’s need to recognise that one of the fundamental problems at the ECZ is lack of financial resources – this has been well documented . Although the PF reforms will help improve political independence, operational independence will be absent without greater guarantee of financial resources. Not only that, ECZ has important tasks that it needs to undertake routinely for the greater good that it is not doing. These include on-going and updated voters’ registers and institutional programme change that leads to greater professionalization of the outfit. It also goes without saying that to attract the best to work at ECZ their wages will need to improve. All of this will need money (democracy is not always cheap). Similarly, PF has made no commitments on fixed election dates – something it can simply do by suggesting that elections will always be held on the day the five year term expires. This is a quick political (and democratic) win that will go a long way to eliminate the current political uncertainty.
More worrying perhaps is the lack of attention to rampant judicial conflict of interest. It is not right that Justice Mambilima should hold two positions – one as Deputy Chief Justice and another as ECZ Chief. This creates significant conflict of interest especially that her boss Chief Justice is the returning officer. In general the use of judges at the ECZ must be brought to an end. It is leading to the damage of the judiciary and disturbs the balance of power by allowing them to extend their reach into “executive hands”. We now have this country’s top judges pandering to the President.
That said, all of the above is in danger of dwarfed by the PF insistent to fund political parties. The proposal to “introduce legislation to allow for government financing of political parties with representation in parliament” is misguided and must be dropped. Whilst one appreciates the difficulties facing opposition political parties in Zambia today, public financing is not the solution. The focus should be on regulating political donors and possible introduction of spending caps. Public funding should only be permitted when there’s a general public question in form of a referendum.
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Zambian Economist is currently reviewing manifestos of leading political parties in Zambia. All posts in this ongoing review can be found at Manifesto Analysis.