After coming to power via a democratic election, President Hakainde Hichilema and the ruling UPND have manipulated the Electoral Commission of Zambia and the judicial process to exclude key opposition candidates from the ballots taking place today. At the heart of these manoeuvres is the fear of defeat to the excluded candidates and the desire to increase their number of MPs in parliament for the purpose of amending the constitution to entrench themselves in power.

To give the elections some guise of legitimacy, they have ‘allowed’ weaker rival candidates to remain on the ballots in both Kwacha and Kabushi constituencies. In so doing, the UPND has strategically rigged and ‘won’ the elections even before the first ballot is cast. This form of rigging is called electoral exclusion. By employing this desperate and dangerous strategy to win polls, the ruling party is effectively fermenting civil strife and even civil war – the usual outcomes of similar experiences elsewhere in Africa.

If Hichilema and the UPND are prepared to go to this length merely to ‘win’ a parliamentary by-election, what would stop them from rigging a presidential election? Having been in the doldrums of opposition politics for over two decades, the UPND is sending a clear message that they will go to any length – including manipulating the rules and norms of a democratic political game, illegitimately banning rival candidates, and abusing incumbency advantage – to secure electoral victory and retain power.

Be worried, Zambia. Our democracy is still under attack, but now by President Hichilema, the man who vowed to rescue it when he was in opposition.

If we are to improve the quality of our governance, we must remain engaged in the democratic process in between elections, as opposed to waiting for Election Day to rescue the country from the abyss. Without the consequences of criticism from many of the voices from academia, civil society and the church who spoke truth to power under the previous regime, this ‘new dawn’ leadership might turn out to be a tragedy for both our democracy and the country.

Contrary to what many are saying, Zambia is not returning to democracy. Not yet.