PRESIDENT Edgar Lungu says he respects the independence of the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) and that insinuations that he has directed the Commission to abandon the old voters’ register to disadvantage the opposition in the 2021 general election is not true.

And President Lungu says he is equally uncomfortable with some of the ECZ’s newly-introduced methods of voter registration, but has deliberately decided to restrain himself from commenting because his words may be misconstrued as interference.

This week, University of Zambia (UNZA) lecturer Dr Sishuwa Sishuwa highlighted how President Lungu devised a two-fold strategy that seeks to eliminate the possibility of removing him from power through the ballot in 2021.

“Election rigging in many of Africa’s democracies occurs through a range of strategies, such as ballot-box stuffing, electoral bribery, violence against political opponents and the emasculation of the independent media that usually serve as the main outlet for opposition parties denied coverage in state-run publications. Other tactics involve putting dead voters on the electoral register, creating irregularities to obstruct voters and, more recently, using fake news to sway the electoral outcome. These strategies have been used to varying success, but they are not as common as they once were. Their susceptibility to failure and the infectious willingness by the Judiciary to nullify fraudulently-won elections, as recently happened in Kenya and Malawi, has prompted incumbent presidents elsewhere to devise more sophisticated and subtle ways of guaranteeing their stay in power. A clear example is Zambia’s President, Edgar Lungu. Ahead of the general election in August, 2021, he devised a two-fold strategy that would eliminate the possibility of removing him from power through the ballot,” Dr Sishuwa wrote in his article, published in News Diggers! Monday.

He stated that one of President Lungu’s strategies to rig elections was to force the Constitution Amendment process by including a clause for formation of a coalition government.

“The first mechanism Lungu created to shape the outcome of the 2021 presidential election is an amendment to the Constitution that enables the formation of a coalition government if none of the candidates get more than 50 per cent of the total valid votes cast. The Constitution currently allows a second ballot between the top two candidates. Lungu barely scraped a victory in the last general election in 2016, winning by 50.3 per cent. This time, he is not taking any chances. His governing Patriotic Front (PF) party has taken to Parliament a Constitution of Zambia (Amendment) Bill Number 10 of 2019, which proposes another stage to Zambia’s election between the first vote and a potential run-off,” he stated.

“In this middle stage, if no presidential candidate has won more than 50 per cent in the first round, then the leading candidate, but no other candidate, could propose a coalition with a losing candidate of their choice, with the only requirement being that, ‘the combined votes of that presidential candidate and the preferred presidential candidate forming the coalition government meet the threshold of more than 50 per cent of the valid votes cast.’ It retains the existing constitutional provision on the run-off, but only if the presidential candidate with the highest number of votes fails to form a coalition government within the specified time period. This suggests Lungu is anticipating another close election where he may emerge with more votes than his rivals, but fall short of the required 50 per cent + 1 vote threshold. In this instance, just an extra two per cent or three per cent may be needed to form a winning majority. This will probably come from smaller, Lungu-friendly parties that are in opposition in name only. Their votes total may be tiny, but this amendment could turn them into kingmakers. The much-criticised Bill requires the support of two-thirds of the MPs to pass. If all MPs from the main opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) manage to remain resilient to bribery, the Bill won’t be passed.”

Dr Sishuwa also charged that the other mechanism in which President Lungu was devising to rig elections was to compel the ECZ to discard the old voters’ register and call for fresh registration.

“The second way Lungu is rigging the election is by abolishing the current voters’ register, numbering six million electors, and creating a new one favourable to his prospects. Senior figures in the PF said Lungu is afraid he will lose the 2021 poll if the voters’ roll used in the last general election is not discarded. His fears are not unfounded. He was first elected in the 2015 presidential by-election that followed Michael Sata’s untimely death in office. He was re-elected in the disputed 2016 polls, narrowly defeating Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the UPND, who polled 47.6 per cent of the total presidential votes cast. Lungu knows he is in trouble because ECZ data shows that voter turnout was, on average, higher in the regions won by his rival compared with those that voted for him,” charged Dr Sishuwa.

“Recognising the limited time that remains before the 2021 election — less than 10 months — the Commission pledged to allocate not more than 30 days to the voter registration exercise, starting on 28 October. By using the Commission this way, Lungu hopes to disenfranchise as many opposition supporters as possible. Three of the four provinces in which Hichilema retains huge support, for instance, are in rural areas. Limited publicity about the Commission’s plans to abolish the existing register, the long distances to the nearest administrative centres, the onset of the rainy season (which starts in late October), and the limited time available to complete the exercise will undermine the capacity of voters in these areas to take part in the voter registration.”

But in a statement issued by his Special Assistant for Press and Public Relations Isaac Chipampe President Lungu insisted he respected the ECZ’s independence and would not interfere with its operations.

“His Excellency, Dr Edgar Chagwa Lungu, President of the Republic of Zambia, has noted with concern insinuations from some quarters of society that he has directed the Electoral Commission of Zambia to abandon the current voters’ register and to introduce electronic voting in an effort to disadvantage the opposition in the 2021 election. The Electoral Commission of Zambia is an independent and autonomous electoral management body, empowered under Act No. 35 of 2016 ‘to make regulations providing for the registration of voters and for the manner of conducting elections,’ among other functions. Therefore, President Lungu would like to reaffirm his unwavering commitment to ensuring the independence of the Electoral Commission of Zambia, or, indeed, any other constitutional body. The President would, therefore, not sanction any acts that would usurp the powers of the Electoral Commission of Zambia. Under his leadership, President Lungu has allowed and will continue to allow constitutional bodies like the ECZ to operate autonomously and independently,” Chipampe stated.

And the Head of State stated that it was absurd that some citizens thought that he was using the Commission to his advantage.

“President Lungu, therefore, finds it absurd that some citizens continue to claim that he is directing the Electoral Commission of Zambia to change voter registration methods to his and the ruling party’s advantage. President Lungu adds that even him and the ruling party are uncomfortable with some of the newly-introduced methods, but he is restrained to comment because his words may be seen as interference in the operations of the Electoral Commission of Zambia. More importantly, President Lungu does not want the electoral process to be marred in controversy and prays that the polls would be free and fair before, during and after voting,” stated Chipampe.