What are Free and Fair Elections?
ZAMBIA has since the return of multiparty democracy in 1991 held seven presidential elections of which two were as result of the death of the incumbent president.
In all of these elections, the international community has held that they elections were free and fair.
According to a paper entitled ‘Perspective on Zambia 2016 Elections – How Prepared Is Zambia?’ by Francis Chigunta, a free and fair election has some of the following characteristics, namely, a supportive legal and regulatory framework is in place, the Electoral (Code of Conduct) Regulations are strictly complied with by all players, political freedoms are guaranteed and opposition parties are covered by the state-owned media. It also includes the following: there is professional conduct by the police; there is no political violence; the private media operates freely while state media offers fair coverage to all, political parties are accorded a level playing field for their campaigns, peaceful elections are held, there is secrecy of the ballot and election results are accepted by all stakeholders.
In the case of Zambia and the kind of constitution we have, the president is said to wield enormous powers that tend to disadvantage the opposition and render state institutions weak when it comes to controlling the president as one the many electoral players. According to the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), one of the major factors which undermine the democratic progress in Zambia is the interface of presidential dominance, patronage, and corruption. The president, as chief executive of the state, has very broad discretionary powers such that he is at liberty to use those powers to serve partisan purposes and indulge in cronyism.
In addition, the APRM notes the president of the country is also the president of the ruling party. A situation where the president is vested with a combination of centralised executive decision-making, control of the state budget, appointment and disciplining of state officers, and the dispensing of official patronage to members of the ruling party is contrary to accepted practices and principles of good governance. Thus any decisions the president may make are likely to be motivated merely by the demands and requirements of a party seeking to perpetuate its hold on power and use public resources for its own interests. The APRM stresses that the state centralisation-patronage-corruption nexus in Zambia is so ﬁrmly rooted that there appears to be no genuine political will to entrench participatory and genuinely constitutional democracy.
Article 50 (1) of the Constitution provides for a political party and a candidate contesting an election to have access to the media, especially during election campaigns. However, one week into the campaign period, the state media, namely Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), Times of Zambia and Zambia Daily Mail are still negatively reporting on opposition political parties while giving over 90 percent coverage to the Patriotic Front (PF) and its interests.
In electoral terms, according to Dr. Chigunta’s paper, this means that elections in Zambia take place in an environment that resembles what is now known as competitive authoritarianism. This depicts a civilian non-democratic regime with regularly held elections that are competitive but extremely unfair to the opposition political parties. In such systems, democratic institutions exist and are regarded as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority, but power holders violate those rules so often that the regime fails to meet minimum democratic standards. Incumbents regularly harass opposition leaders and censor the media. Yet elections are regularly held and remain competitive, and opposition candidates can and sometimes do win. It is therefore important to ensure that this challenge is addressed to entrench genuine democratic practices and conduct.