Saying bye (elections) to democracy in Zambia

Zambia’s ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party came to power in 2011 with 60 members of parliament, just five more than the losing Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) – and well short of an overall majority in the 150 seat National Assembly. Since then, President Michael Sata has sought to fashion the parliamentary majority his party did not secure in the general election by engineering a host of by-elections, which his party – enjoying all the benefits of incumbency – is most likely to win.

Author

May 22nd, 2013

Zambia’s ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party came to power in 2011 with 60 members of parliament, just five more than the losing Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) – and well short of an overall majority in the 150 seat National Assembly. Since then, President Michael Sata has sought to fashion the parliamentary majority his party did not secure in the general election by engineering a host of by-elections, which his party – enjoying all the benefits of incumbency – is most likely to win.

The first part of the campaign involved the PF petitioning the results of the 2011 polls in 50 constituencies where it narrowly lost, claiming fraud and vote buying by the ruling MMD. These cases are still being contested in the courts, but it is likely that some of the results will be nullified and by-elections ordered – and when that happens, the PF will be ready.

Indeed, it has already won 5 of the 6 by-elections that have been held following defections from the opposition benches to the PF. These defections and ensuing by-elections are the second part of the PF’s seize-complete-control-of-parliament strategy. Working with his closest advisor and Minister of Justice, Wynter Kabimba – who, ironically, has twice failed to win a parliamentary seat – Sata has engaged in deliberately predatory politics – luring 13 opposition MPs to join his government by giving them deputy ministerial positions.

These defections have crippled the opposition and forced a series of by-elections that have seen the PF increase its representation to 71, including the 8 MPs that the president is constitutionally entitled to nominate. And with four more by-elections pending, the PF seems set to move closer towards its ultimate goal – 100 seats and a two-thirds majority in parliament.

Complete control of parliament is important for Sata because he clearly wants to preside over a de facto one party state with nominal opposition and a complaint media. This will allow him to dilute or stall the current constitution, which calls for a reduction in the powers of the executive, and provides more autonomy for the judiciary and media. There is also the contentious ‘50-plus-one’ clause, which the PF would like removed – as it is unlikely to amass sufficient votes at the next election in 2016 given that its support is largely confined to three of Zambia’s nine provinces. A united opposition could win the presidential poll.

Needless to say Sata has been encouraged by the number of PF ‘victories’ and its increasing control of the legislature. And the PF has already used its growing strength to ride roughshod over parliament in appointing Mutembo Nchito, a Sata ally, as Director of Public Prosecution, despite overwhelming evidence of his unsuitability for the post. Even more controversially, the PF also succeeded – narrowly – in stripping former President Rupiah Banda of his immunity, despite much spirited opposition in the house.

However, the tricks that Sata and the PF are using are not new. After Levy Mwanawasa won the presidency in the contested 2001 elections, he faced the threat of an opposition-dominated parliament – so he introduced the concept of co-opting members of the opposition into his government. As an opposition leader at the time, Sata railed against this manipulation of the system.

But there is nothing illegal about the practice. The Zambian constitution allows a president to appoint an MP to a position in government irrespective of the political party the MP belongs to. In addition, MPs are allowed to cross the floor. But what has infuriated many Zambians is that there has never been so much floor-crossing before, nor so many by-elections – most of which have been orchestrated by Sata.

The situation has been condemned by – among many others – the Zambia Episcopal Conference and the Evangelic Fellowship of Zambia, which issued a strongly worded pastoral letter recently saying that they seriously questioned the ‘justification’ and ‘authenticity’ of the many parliamentary by-elections and wondered why the government was ready to waste ‘colossal’ sums of money on the election campaigns when the country’s hospitals were facing a critical shortage of medical staff and equipment due to inadequate funding.

The Catholic NGO, Caritas, added its voice to the criticism, claiming that it was ‘irresponsible’ for the PF government to continue diverting money that was meant for development to organise by-elections while the majority of Zambians were going hungry.

And many people are definitely struggling. The government has removed subsidies on fuel and other essential commodities, which have led to a huge rise in the cost of food. There have also been over 1,000 job losses in the mining industry in recent months. As opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema says, the PF should be focusing on these issues and not on ‘unwarranted by-elections’.

But Sata has deflected these criticisms, saying his government was committed to the concept of an ‘all-inclusive governance approach’ – meaning he will work with whomever he chooses – and describing all the complaints about the by-elections as ‘trivial’. He argues that it is not his fault that people want to defect and that it is a politician’s constitutional right to belong to a political party of his or her choice.

Sports minister and PF spokesperson, Chishimba Kambwili, has also weighed in – claiming that resources have not been diverted because the by-elections were budgeted for. But this is hard to believe given that the Election Commission of Zambia was only allocated K4 million to conduct by-elections – since it was assumed that only one or two would be necessary and that they would take place following the death of an incumbent.

With 6 by-elections already held and four more (at least) on the cards, it seems certain that money must have been diverted from other spheres of government. In addition, government officials, including the president, vice-president and ministers, routinely use state resources during the campaigns – increasing the cost to the public purse.

While most of the criticism has been directed at the president and the PF, defecting MPs have not been spared from attack. Most of those who have crossed the floor are new MPs, who have been easily persuaded by the ‘carrot’ of a deputy ministerial post – and by the fact that they do will no longer have to contribute part of their salary to their party. However, these are neither Cabinet positions nor all that influential. Indeed, Sata has appointed as many as three deputy ministers in some ministries – to accommodate the defectors.

In his election campaign, Sata had actually promised the opposite – vowing to run a leaner government. It is just one of the many campaign pledges that he has failed to fulfil. Or indeed performed a complete U-turn.

There are calls now to make amendments to the constitution in order to regulate by-elections and minimise the incentives for crossing over. But as long as the PF is in power and benefiting from the right to defect, it is highly unlikely that the new constitution will incorporate any such clauses.

Instead, the PF will continue to target extra seats in parliament and Zambia will continue to sink towards another de facto one party state.

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