Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) chief electoral officer Patrick Nshindano says the 2021 general election will be highly contested, just like the 2016 one which saw a minimal margin of results between President Edgar Lungu and opposition UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema.

And Nshindano says there is a lot to learn from the just-ended Chilubi parliamentary by-election and that stakeholders should take a collective blame for the gaps recorded.

Meanwhile, the chief electoral officer says the commission has made a submission to the Attorney General to have the enforcement regulation of the Electoral Code of Conduct reviewed so that ECZ can have powers to take action against erring political parties during an election without waiting for recommendations from the lower structures.

Speaking when he featured on ZNBC’s Sunday Interview, Nshindano said the fact that the coming general elections will be highly contested requires genuine dialogue among stakeholders to minimise discord.

“We are coming from a very contested 2016 general election where the margins between the incumbent and the opposition were quite minimal. And now we are getting again to a very highly contested election in 2021. So, that level of contestability manifests in different forms when it comes to the electoral environment. And this is where stakeholders need to dialogue, and that dialogue needs to be very honest. You don’t come to the dialogue table already with preconceived perceptions and notions of things. People need to dialogue genuinely and in honesty,” Nshindano said.

“One of the gaps that you will see is that the interaction between the public sector (government) and civil society is one of watchdog and there is a lot of suspicion. And most people don’t really understand and appreciate what goes on inside and those that are outside also don’t get an appreciation of the other stakeholders. And the need to bridge that is very important, especially in electoral processes. We get a lot of commentaries that are completely out of context and don’t speak to the issues and you wonder why. And my position with interaction from the civil society gives me the opportunity to help in bridging that gap.”

He said electoral stakeholders must collectively find long term solutions to the challenges recorded in the Chilubi by-election.

“Chilubi [election], if we were to describe it, it was a learning phase. I think there is a lot to learn from the Chilubi election. I think we need to take collective blame on a number of aspects and be able to find long term solutions to some of the issues that happened. There is a lot of finger-pointing when it comes to the electoral process. We need to identify where these weakness are, is it an issue of infrastructure? Is it the way political parties are conducting themselves? Is it an issue of the law that we have currently and how do we work on those to make our electoral process better?” Nshindano said.

Asked why the commission seemed to limit the campaign space for the opposition parties and showed bias towards the ruling party, Nshindano said the law was followed to the letter.

“Sanctions should kick in and the commission has been in the process of trying to do just that. But of course, we must realize that the commission cannot breach the law as it were. If there is an institution that is bound to be taken to court, it is the Electoral Commission of Zambia and we need to ensure that the whole due process of the law is followed. So, when the Electoral Code of Conduct says before you can sanction, you have to make sure that the parties that are indifferent in this case go through the District Conflict Resolution Management and then the commission needs to take it up. We need to follow that to the letter,” Nshindano said.

He said the ECZ has proposed a review of the enforcement regulation of the Electoral Code of Conduct to give ECZ powers to punish political parties that breach the law during elections.

“And the commission has decided to review the enforcement regulation to allow it to move in its own instances. This means that when we do establish that yes, indeed, these political parties breached the Electoral Code of Conduct, we will be able to move in our own instance without having to wait for recommendations from those lower structures. And this is already very advanced. The review of the enforcement regulation on the Electoral Code of Conduct has already been submitted to the Attorney General and once that is done, you will be able to see the commission more into action,” Nshindano said.

“There are certain things that we need to act on and that is the issue of violence. We have realized that gap and the Zambian citizens have cried out on this issue. And this has also been a cry of the political parties themselves, they will come to say ‘the commission is toothless’ and how can we bite? It is through revision of the enforcement regulation and we are going to do just that when we see that there is need for the commission to act very decisively, we are going to do that in a very impartial manner. We are not going to be selective, even if it is the ruling or the opposition, we are going to apply it in a very passionate manner in line with the law. And at this point in time, no political party should blame the commission. They will have themselves to blame if they breach the Electoral Code of Conduct.”

Asked why the ECZ was insisting on having ballot papers printed abroad when government wanted them to be printed locally, Nshindano said the law was clear that the process has to undergo an internationally open competitive bidding process.

“There is nothing that stops a local company from printing ballot papers. But as a commission, we have to follow the law and value of ballot printing entails that it has to be an internationally open competitive bidding process, meaning that bidders should be both local companies and international companies. And when it comes to evaluation, we evaluate based on the parameters of need that are set. If you want to print [the ballots only locally], unless you change the law but the law is very categorical. There are no two ways about it, not even the directive from the executive can change that, unless you change the law. But as it stands now, it’s not possible. So, we need to capacitate our local companies first and then change the law if we were to do that,” Nshindano said.

He also maintained that the commission will not sponsor any political party representatives to observe the printing of ballot papers in Dubai because it is not mandated by law to do so.

Meanwhile, Nshindano said the commission has targeted to register nine million new voters through mobile, stationed as well as online registration system ahead of the 2021 polls.

“We have set ourselves to start in May, all things being equal because there are a number of things that need to be taken into account…So, we will have a mobile registration, we are going to have a stationed registration, and we are also going to have online registration. And the online registration will also have to be a full registration where from start to end, you get everything online. But at some point, you have to present yourself for obvious reasons to collect biometrics. And this is meant to enhance security features of the register as well. We are going to create a totally new register. It’s a very huge undertaking. We are targeting nine (09) million voters based on eligibility,” he said.

And Nshindano said the commission will adhere to the ruling by the ConCourt to have all prisoners vote in 2021.

“Yes, exciting and challenging. We have a ruling from the ConCourt which directed us that we should allow prisoners to vote and that that right should be upheld. As a commission, we are anxious because this is something that will be done for the first time in the history of Zambia. It has pros and cons,” said Nshindano.