It would appear that the new boss at the Electoral Commission of Zambia together with his public relations manager are rehearsing a very dangerous and stubborn bootlicking drill ahead of 2021.
On Tuesday, madam Margaret Chimanse, in her capacity as the new ECZ public relations manager issued a statement that categorically said nothing, other than exposing the Commission’s lack of independence and spine.
“The Electoral Commission of Zambia has taken note of the sentiments made through the media about the commencement of political campaigns by some political parties. The Commission wishes to advise that Section 28 (3) of the Electoral Process Act No. 35 of 2016 provides that ‘The campaign period shall commence and close on such dates as the Commission may determine’. The Commission therefore has no jurisdiction to regulate any political activities outside the official campaign period as stipulated by law,” stated Chimanse.
“All matters relating to political activities outside the prescribed campaign period are supposed to be managed by relevant law enforcement agencies that have the mandate to maintain law and order under the Public Order Act, Cap 113.”
This statement left us totally bewildered. We could not fathom how a powerful institution like ECZ could make a public statement without communicating anything. Since they say the law mandates them to announce the official campaign date, are they challenging President Lungu who said that campaigns have started? What exactly was ECZ mumbling about; talking about the police responsibility to maintain law and order? Did someone ask ECZ to go and arrest people for unlawful assembly?
If a political party went to complain to the Commission, there is a precedent on how that complaint should have been handled.
In October 2013, the MMD, UPND and NAREP complained to the Electoral Commission about an early campaign tour that the then Head of State, Michael Sata had embarked on.
The ECZ convened a National Conflict Management Committee meeting and came up with a communiqué signed by all stakeholder which resolved that: “A sitting President could not be stopped from inspecting developmental projects in the country. But if President Sata wanted to hold POLITICAL PARTY MEETINGS (in areas where there were pending by-election), such political meetings should be held indoors”. The ECZ further guided that holding such “PUBLIC CAMAPIGN MEETINGS BEFORE THE ELECTION DATE WAS ANNOUNCED was a breach of the electoral laws and guidelines”.
In our current scenario, the President has explicitly said that election campaigns for 2021 have started. He has further invited his political opponents to hit the ground running if they so wish. Now, if this is the position by the Republican President, which the ECZ is challenging, why not say so? If they can’t categorically disagree with a sitting President over such an obvious issue, how can they resist his influence over election results?
We would expect the new ECZ Executive Director Mr Chomba Chella to tell the public that while the police are in charge of enforcing the Public Order Act, the supervision of the electoral code of conduct and the prevention of electoral malpractices fall squarely on the Electoral Commission of Zambia. Therefore, if they had to say something about early campaigns, they had the right to challenge the President and say ‘campaigns will only start when we say so’, and go further to explain how the Lungu-sanctioned early campaigns may affect ECZ’s ability to manage the 2021 polls.
This is why madam Chimanse’s statement, simple as it may appear, left many concerned Zambians worried. This is a particularly dangerous statement if it was not solicited. If they received a complaint from a political stakeholder, then when did their Conflict Management Committee sit to hear submissions from political party representatives?
If ECZ is trying to weave its way out of the partisan perception, and wishing to reclaim it’s 2011 glorious reputation, this is not the kind of statements it should embellish itself with. This statement simply proves that Mr Chella has taken over a Commission that is responsible for Electoral “Commotion” in this country, and things may not improve for the better. This being their first public statement, we can imagine what to expect from the Elections House when the ruling party turns the heat, two years from now.
Our opinion is that campaigns never truly end; by way of the fact that the electoral process runs through the entire period from one poll date to the next. That is why if the government today started issuing National Registration Cards to Congolese refugees, that would be regarded as a process of rigging the 2021 elections.
The difference with the situation we are in, however, is that campaign activities have taken up the larger fraction of the governing party’s time. Ministers have preoccupied themselves with soliciting for votes, three years ahead of time. They are dishing out money, bicycles and cell phones in the name of community development. While they do this, they are neglecting the real issues which are affecting peasants like fertilizer, rural electrification, school and health infrastructure.
The danger with this is that our government has started channelling more money towards facilitating campaign tours for the President and his Cabinet ministers, while service delivery slows down. When they go on radio and television, what they talk about is how popular their party is, defections and predicting election victory.
But in a country like Zambia, where campaigns are marred with extensive proportions of violence, it should worry stakeholders that jobless youths will be the biggest losers, as they will yet again be sacrificed to the ugly face of panga campaigns, even before the commission tasked to investigate electoral violence finishes its job.
What is worse is that the candidates, especially for the presidency are not known. The Constitutional Court is still deliberating over the eligibility of one Edgar Chagwa Lungu, so how can the influence of this full-blown PF campaign on the ConCourt be ignored?
These are the issues one would expect to hear the ECZ raise if at all they had to say something. But if they were just waking up with nothing to add to the debate, they were better off yawning in silence.