Editorial: Katuba by-election, better monitoring needed

The people of Katuba constituency have seven candidates whose credentials they must cautiously interrogate within the remaining three weeks before voting day.

In the same period, each one of the seven will, no doubt, speak the genteel language of a future full of promise should they be sent to Manda Hill. Just as there is no shortage of candidates, there will be no shortage of the usual political rhetoric. As to who will finally replace the late Dr.Patrick Chikusu, the jury will be back with the verdict on February 25.

In the meantime reports of malpractices have already started. We can only guess that as usual the run upto the polls will be plagued by many more complaints, least of which will be the infamous use of violence and bribery to coerce or woe voters. Almost all the previous by-elections were roundly criticised by the losing candidates and monitors, and, in most cases, rightly so.

But because we hear exactly the same complaints time and again and nothing is being done to address them, these criticisms are beginning to feel a bit hollow. The violations take on a pattern, and the scolding from the Electoral Commission often sounds too dutiful, too stale, and – above all – too narrow. We think a new approach to election monitoring is required.

Our message is incredibly simple: elections do not take place in a vacuum, and their quality cannot be judged solely by what happens during the vote. We must examine what happens before, during and after elections, and survey the long-term rights landscape, particularly the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

ecz-logoFree and fair elections are not just about polling day. Given the electoral history of Zambia where it is not uncommon for citizens to be denied the right to assemble and debate, election monitoring needs to be broader in scope.

Election periods are a time for citizens to express their collective will and confer legitimacy on their representatives. We insist, therefore, that all political parties, the people of Katuba, and indeed any other forth coming (by) elections, should be given more space – not less – to exercise their assembly and association rights. If they are not, it fundamentally undermines the legitimacy of the process. And that calls into question the legitimacy of the outcome itself.

Unfortunately, as alluded to above, the state machinery has been increasingly targeting peaceful assemblies and associations in the country generally but also in the some specific contexts of elections.

In Mkaika, for example, we remember that problems did not start on election day. Opposition parties and their (perceived) supporters were surgically targeted. Nor was that all. In Feira violence was taken to a new level. Similar malpractices were noted in Mansa Central, including harassment of media outlets covering the by elections.

To all political parties we say we condemn all such abuses outright for what they are: clear violations that undermine the legitimacy of the democratic process. We insist that it does not matter if they happen before, on or after Election Day. You have the responsibility to tame your cadres especially as far as violence and other unbecoming behaviours are concerned.

You also have a primary responsibility to select quality party agents and adequately prepare/train them if they are to fully secure the Electoral process mainly in the pre-election period, not just the Election Day. It’s crucial because they’re the primary players. As political parties you can’t relax and hope to depend only on election monitors to do so in a quality and meaningful way. In addition we think it is important that you invest in wide deployment. That way, you can coordinate and tactfully deploy in a way that helps you to collectively have a ‘joint pool’ of quality and credible Poll agents in 100% polling stations.

To all election monitors we say there is no more room, your intellectual acrobatics that we have seen in the past, where you acknowledge serious human rights issues and malpractices in a given election, yet you go ahead and declare that the elections “substantially reflected the will of the people”. Such “elections” – in which citizens are systematically divested of the rights necessary to participate peacefully in a functioning democracy – are more appropriately referred to as civilian coups, and we must judge them as such.

To the PF government we demand that through the Police you improve efforts to facilitate and protect assembly and association rights during all phases of election periods. As Government of the day, you must recognise that these rights play a decisive role in the existence of effective democratic systems. They allow for dialogue, pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness. They are a prerequisite for a legitimate democracy.

Finally, we recommend that ECZ raises election observation standards, to place more emphasis on the long-term health of assembly and association rights in determining whether an election was genuine. This applies equally for the periods before, during and after the election.

The idea that we should accept elections that “substantially reflect the will of the people” is not good enough. We, as Zambians, must strive for something better. Democracy is a year-round job, not a one-off ritual that happens on polling day. It’s time we broadened our monitoring criteria to reflect that fact- beginning with Katuba.