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Reflections from observing Zambia general election

OPINION
By Sen. Okong’o Omogeni | August 15th 2021

Zambia's main opposition rival Hakainde Hichilema and President Edgar Lungu

On Thursday, 12th August, 2021, millions of voters in Zambia woke up early to vote for their preferred candidates in the presidential, parliamentary, mayoral, and council elections. This was the 13th time that Zambians went to the polls since independence, and the 9th time since restoration of multi-party democracy in 1991, which came after nearly two decades of one-party rule. 

Since then, Zambia has recorded relative stability with the presidency rotating among the United National Independence Party (UNIP), the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD), and the Patriotic Front (PF). Notably, two of the eight presidential elections that have taken place since 1991 followed the deaths of sitting presidents, that is Levy Mwanawasa in 2008, and Michael Sata in 2015. 

I was in Zambia as part of an election observation mission by the Forum of Parliaments of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (FP-ICGLR). Alongside colleagues from COMESA, the African Union, the Commonwealth, and other monitoring groups, we were deployed at polling stations across the country to observe the conduct of the elections. This included monitoring preparations for and activities prior to opening of polling stations, the voting exercise itself, close of polls, counting, tallying, and announcement of the elections results. 

The team that I was leading visited polling stations across Chalimbana and Chongwe Wards in Chongwe Constituency, Lusaka Province. The largest of these, that is Chongwe Secondary School stream 1, had 988 registered voters, while the smallest, Kalangwa Farm, had 108 registered voters. Voters turned out in large numbers and with enthusiasm to elect their leaders and representatives for the next five years. The voters and election officials we spoke to indicated that this election may record a much higher turnout compared to previous elections. 

Part of the reason for this may be what was billed as a very close contest between President Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front and his closest challenger, Mr. Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND). In the last general elections held in August 2016, President Lungu won the election against Mr. Hichilema by a margin of only 100,530 votes. While there were sixteen candidates running for president in the current election, the contest remained between President Lungu and Mr. Hichilema. 

The election observation mission that I was part of will issue a comprehensive report in due course. In the meantime, I would like to share some of the observations that I made regarding the election process in Zambia. 

Branding and identity of political parties 

In Zambia, citizens speak of their political affiliation by colour. This comes about as the main parties have been in existence for long and have maintained distinct colours and branding which can be easily identified by different cadres of voters across the country. For instance, Green is the colour of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF), while red is the colour of the United Party for National Development (UPND). The PF and UPND have maintained their identities since they were founded in 2001 and 1998, respectively. That predates the main political parties in Kenya today. 

Close of the campaign period 

The campaign period in Zambia runs up to the night preceding the election. In Kenya, the campaign window closes two days ahead of the election date. We may need to review the pros and cons of closing the campaign period that early, while in most jurisdictions candidates are allowed to pitch to voters until hours to when polls open.   

Access to the voter register 

The coloured printout of the register of voters for each stream, with photographs of each voter, was made available to the agents of the candidates for the various positions. Once a voter entered the polling room, the polling clerk checked their identification documents and read their name out loud. The agents would then cross-check and mark the voter in their register as the polling clerk also did so. At the close of polling, the agents would review their register and verify the actual number of persons who voted. The number had to tally with that in the register held by the polling clerk, as well as the number of ballot papers issued.  

This is a significant departure from our case where access to the register of voters has always been problematic. Notably, even in instances where the register is made available to political parties, agents of candidates at the polling station are not accorded the opportunity to verify details of each voter and to mark the same in their register, which they can cross-check against the one held by the election officials. 

Political party agents at polling stations 

The agents at the polling stations represented the candidates sponsored by the respective political party for the positions of President, Member of Parliament, Mayor, and Councilor. There were no separate agents for each position. The agent was able to observe and record critical details during opening and sealing of ballot boxes, unsealing of ballot papers, verification of voters, issuance of ballot papers, the voting exercise, close of polling, opening of ballot boxes, and counting of results. 

The cost of recruiting, training, and placing agents at every polling station is one of the biggest expenses that candidates incur during elections. In our case, each candidate will usually have their own agents at each polling station, even where there are agents at the same polling station representing candidates for the other positions from the same political party. This is one area we may need to explore how to organize, at the political party level, how to synchronize the recruitment, training, and placement of agents at polling stations, who would then be agents of all the candidates sponsored by that political party for the various positions. 

It would also help lower the cost of elections and foster the inclusion of special groups such as women, youth, and persons with disability. 

Counting of votes and announcement of results 

With the number of voters per stream capped at 1,000, the election law requires that counting of ballots be undertaken within two hours for each position. The agents of the candidates must be there throughout the process and, at the end, sign the form declaring the election results for that stream. 

In our case, without a legal cap on the time that should be taken to count ballots, there have been instances where the process has taken inordinately long, thus creating room for suspicions of foul play or manipulation of votes. This is an area in which we may consider strengthening our electoral law and regulations. 

Overall voting environment

Zambians are very peaceful people, and this was demonstrated in the manner that they carried themselves during the voting day. In the areas that we visited, we did not witness incidents of violence, intimidation, or bribery. Citizens turned out early, queued patiently and conversed with other voters as they awaited their turn to vote. Once done, they left for home to await the close of polling and counting of votes. 

Where a voter required assistance with voting, the poll officials notified the agents and ensured that such assistance was offered in accordance with the election rules in place.  

Some of the challenges noted included insufficient lighting in the polling stations, which affected preparation of polling materials in the morning and the counting exercise at night; shortage of clerks deployed per polling station, which in some instances led to delays in verification of voter details or issuance of ballot papers; and crowding in some polling stations, which presented the risk of spreading COVID-19. 

Conclusion 

We were warmly received in Zambia and greatly enjoyed our stay and interaction with the people as we visited various parts of the country.  

Besides enjoying cordial diplomatic relations dating back to independence, Zambia and Kenya share an uncanny political history, including a multi-party decade or so post-independence, a long period of one-party rule, followed by re-introduction of multi-partyism in 1991, in both Kenya and Zambia. Since then, both countries have held general elections every five years, and have recorded peaceful transfer of power from one party to another. 

Our election frameworks are also fairly similar. For instance, while Kenya’s general elections are held on the second Tuesday of August in every fifth year, the elections in Zambia are held on the second Thursday of August in every fifth year. A notable difference is that Kenya has largely integrated technology in the electoral process and laws, including biometric registration and identification of voters at polling stations, as well as the transmission of election results. Zambia on the other hand administers these processes manually.  

Overall, there are many lessons that can be learned and experiences shared between our two countries, towards strengthening democracy, good governance, and the rule of law. 

The writer is the Senator for Nyamira County and Chairperson of the Senate Standing Committee on Justice, Legal Affairs and Human Rights 

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