However, not everyone who is eligible to vote will be able to do so. Instead, thousands of Zambians, mostly hailing from provinces that voted for the opposition in the 2016 elections, will be denied that right unless urgent action is taken.
The new voters’ register
The Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) has recently published a brand new provisional voters’ register which will replace, rather than update, the pre-existing register. Its contents appear to validate many of the concerns that have been raised by both opposition and civil society actors in recent months.
Yet the ECZ says it does not intend to subject the new register to an independent audit, despite this being essential for establishing its integrity and ensuring credibility.
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Having had five years between the 2016 and 2021 elections in which to establish a credible voters’ register, it is outrageous that just 37 days were allocated to the process at a difficult time of year when the rainy season was upon us and farmers were busy preparing their fields.
By way of comparison, the voter registration exercise conducted between the 2015 and 2016 elections lasted for six months and captured over one million voters during that time.
Despite the ECZ having had four years to prepare for this short registration period, it was plagued with numerous teething problems that resulted in lengthy queues and some people even being turned away and told to come back the next day. Given the economic turmoil facing the country and the rising cost of living, many of our citizens do not have such time to spare.
Concerns over the short registration period and the risk of disenfranchisement were raised by both opposition and civil society groups ahead of the process but were dismissed with promises that the ECZ was targeting nine million voters, a significant increase on the pre-existing register of 6.7m. In the end, they reached just over seven million, despite the fact that almost two million Zambians have turned 18 since the 2016 polls.
Skewed in favour of the incumbent
Concerns were also raised during the process over reports that the exercise was skewed towards registering a higher number of voters in provinces that voted in favour of the incumbent Patriotic Front (PF) in the 2016 elections, as well as allegations that in these regions people were being bussed in to register at all hours.
These were readily dismissed as politicking. Yet now we have seen the resulting provisional register, our concerns and worst fears have been validated.
In ‘perceived PF strongholds’ that voted for President Edgar Lungu during the 2016 elections thousands of new voters have been registered.
Eastern Province, where the President hails from, now has an additional 120,324 voters; Muchinga an extra 52,311; Luapula 51,763 and Northern 43,634. Meanwhile, in areas that voted for the opposition, we have seen significant decreases despite continued population growth.
My home of Southern Province now has 31,978 fewer voters, Western Province has 51,772 fewer voters and North-Western has 16,123 fewer voters. It is hard to look at these figures and conclude that the registration exercise was balanced and impartial.
Leading election analysts are equally concerned, both at home and internationally. Comparing the 2016 and 2021 voters’ registers, Sishuwa Sishuwa of the University of Zambia described the elections as “a scam” having previously warned that the creation of a new voters’ roll was part of a deliberate strategy by President Lungu to stay in power.
The need for credible elections
Nicole Beardsworth of the University of Warwick has warned that the situation could undermine the election’s credibility. Commenting on the new roll via Twitter she has stated: “There are concerns that the ruling party might want to selectively disenfranchise citizens in parts of the country that historically vote for the opposition. The only way that the electoral commission can allay these fears is through an independent audit.”
Following their publication, we are calling for redress. To allay these concerns and save the credibility of Zambia’s 2021 election there must be an independent audit of the new register, as well as an urgent extension to the registration exercise, particularly in areas that now have thousands of fewer voters than in 2016 with no clear explanation as to why.
This is not simply a matter of self-interest. If these elections are going to have credibility, if people are going to trust in the process and have confidence in the outcome, then we cannot enter them on such an uneven footing. This is something that is important for all Zambians and our standing as a democratic and peace-loving nation, as had been recognised by the various civil society groups speaking out on the matter including the Church.
This is not just about an electoral battle between government and opposition, or a question of one ideology versus another. This is about standing up for the fundamental democratic rights and freedoms of Zambians not just on 12 August, but for years to come.
We need a free and fair vote for Zambia in 2021 more than ever.
It is the only way to repeal recent anti-democratic legislation such as the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Bill; put an end to the continued abuse of the colonial-era Public Order Act; and prevent the return to arbitrary arrests, media clampdowns and human rights violations. It is the path to repairing our economy after a decade of mismanagement.
That is why we are calling on Zambia’s friends in the region and beyond to add their voices to those pushing for remedial action and an independent audit before it is too late.
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