THERE is a widely-held belief that the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) and the PF government have repeatedly interfered with the electoral process to advantage the party in power.
This is not a belief that should be ignored and dismissed as baseless because, even if one could say it is baseless, it is a belief that our people hold firmly. This means that their reaction to elections may be informed by this belief, which could result in undesirable consequences.
The post-election violence that we have observed in other countries is not always a result of proven wrongs done by the electoral commission. We say this because in the period after the election and the time when violence and mayhem breaks out, there is normally no one able to conclusively prove what has gone wrong.
This means that the people who react, and usually do so spontaneously, react on the basis of the perception that they have of the electoral process that has produced the results that they are not happy with.
Managing perceptions before the elections, therefore, becomes critical to achieving an election that can be regarded as free and fair and representative of the will of the people. How, then, should perceptions be managed? First, it is important to have an electoral commission that is representative of all stakeholders in such a way that it is not seen as the election wing of the party in power. Clearly, this is a weakness that our Electoral Commission suffers from.
Many things have been said about newly-appointed Chief Electoral Officer Patrick Nshindano – fair and unfair. But we ought to remember that we are talking about perceptions here and their potential effect on the acceptability of the outcome of an election. We, therefore, need to pay attention to whatever is said, fair or unfair. Paying attention to what is said means that we give ourselves the opportunity to address the concerns of the public at large in such a way that they feel represented by the Electoral Commission of Zambia.
It does not, for instance, do our Electoral Commission any good when they ignore or throw out the concerns raised by members of the public. The electorate is complaining and protesting the decision to invalidate the old voters’ register. People are tying this move to a conspiracy theory that the Commission wants to help the ruling party in suppressing the number of eligible voters in the opposition UPND strongholds. This allegation and the perception that the Commission is under the control of the Patriotic Front leaves the ECZ fundamentally crippled in its duty to engender confidence in its ability to run free and fair elections.
This perception of rigging requires the utmost humility on the part of the Electoral Commission of Zambia if it is going to surmount this negativity from the people it is supposed to serve. In other words, the Electoral Commission of Zambia needs to reach out more and be more accommodating, particularly to the opposition, if it is going to increase the perception of its own independence and ability to run a free and fair election.
This is the position in which the Electoral Commission of Zambia finds itself. As we said in the beginning, in the matter of relating to the public, managing perception is as important as delivering the service that the people need. So far, the Electoral Commission of Zambia and their reactions to legitimate and very serious concerns raised regarding the voters’ register have done nothing to improve their standing.
Like we stated in the past, at the pace we are going where stakeholders are not even agreed over the voters’ register, we can as well be assured that the ECZ is destined to produce another disputed election in 2021. This is made worse by the fact that the Commission has a very casual approach when attending to electoral malpractice. During the Chilubi parliamentary by-election, the Commission even said it could not do anything because no one made a formal complaint regarding what happened in that constituency.
But it does not help for ECZ to sit around waiting for people to lodge official complaints on malpractice, which they can see with their naked eyes! In our view, you don’t solve problems by being reactive, you have to be proactive. It’s as simple as that. Elections in Zambia have usually been a disputed affair with allegations of rigging, vote-buying and other malpractices always coming up. This must give the ECZ a headache over how to build confidence in the people.
Looking at the violence that occurred during the 2016 elections and its aftermath, we thought ECZ would work towards ensuring more discipline and transparency in the electoral processes so that at the end of the day, when winners are announced, the losers do not accuse the Commission of favouring preferred candidates.
But alas, the Commission seems to have no such agenda!