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ZAMBIA: Electoral Commission Accused of Bias

Kelvin Kachingwe

LUSAKA, Nov 25 2009 (IPS) - The Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) is once again under fire from opposition political parties and some civil society organisations, which accuse it of bias in favour of the ruling party during elections.

The opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), which is in a pact with the Patriotic Front (PF), and last month won a parliamentary by-election, wants the ECZ disbanded.

“The ECZ is made up of commissioners who are loyal to the appointing authorities…we know these facts,” says Charles Kakoma, UPND spokesperson.

Father Frank Bwalya, executive director for Change Life Zambia, a civil society organisation fighting for a fair socio-economic and political environment in the country, says the ECZ has on several occasions failed to act against the ruling party even when it is clear that they have failed to adhere to the provisions of the Electoral Code of Conduct.

Among the accusations he levels against the ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) include: use of government resources such as motor vehicles during campaigns; and making “donations” to voters, and also to schools and churches, in a particular constituency during elections. This is against the Electoral Code of Conduct.

He further accuses the MMD government of issuing National Registration Cards to those ineligible to vote, including refugees.

Bwalya says while the laws governing the conduct of elections in the country are clear, the government has always compromised the ECZ because of the many powers vested in the president who appoints its commissioners.

“The government should disband the ECZ and create an independent body, one which will not feel that it owes its allegiance to the appointing authority,” he says.

But Chris Akufuna, ECZ public relations manager, says the commission is independent – contrary to assertions by some political parties. He says the only time the ECZ consults government is when it needs funding from the national treasury, because elections are a national exercise and the largest chunk of funding for this comes from the state.

“The commission would like to state that these accusations of the commission being biased are not true. As regards accusations of malpractices during elections, the complaints are first dealt with by the district conflict management committee, of which all registered political parties are members,” he says.

The Foundation for Democratic Process (FODEP), which has monitored the elections since 1990, says politicians should desist from attacking the ECZ, particularly as Zambia will in 2011 hold crucial elections requiring a referee respected by all.

FODEP executive director Stanley Mhango says stakeholders like the UPND-PF Pact should help strengthen the ECZ by agitating for an amendment of the electoral laws, as opposed to attacking the institution and calling for its abolition.

“The law that governs the ECZ is so weak that it does not give the commission the capacity to manage the elections to the satisfaction of all. We sympathise with the ECZ, because they are operating under weak laws,” says Mhango.

In 2004 the government appointed an Electoral Reform Technical Committee (ERTC), headed by constitutional lawyer Mwangala Zaloumis, to review the country’s electoral process, and make recommendations to ensure free and fair elections.

The committee received and analysed oral and written submissions from private citizens, political parties, non-governmental organisations, professional bodies, trade unions and religious organisations. Among the recommendations of the ERTC, whose report was submitted to the minister of justice in August 2004, were that the ECZ be independent, and subject only to the Constitution and the law, be impartial and exercise its powers without favour or prejudice.

The committee also recommended that other organs of state, through legislative and other measures, assist and protect the ECZ, to ensure independence and impartiality. Further, the committee said the commissioners on the ECZ must be appointed by the president and ratified by Parliament, upon the recommendation of the Judicial Service Commission. The qualifications for one to be appointed should include high moral integrity, impartiality and recognised competence in electoral matters.

However, this particular recommendation is not entirely different from the current Electoral Commission Act No. 24 of 1996 which says the ECZ shall consist of a chairperson and not more than four commissioners appointed by the President, subject to their ratification by Parliament. Indeed, attacks and complaints against the ECZ are not anything new.

All general elections that have been held from 1991 have resulted in petitions in the Supreme Court. While a few Parliamentary elections results have been nullified, no presidential election result has been over-turned.

Last year, Michael Sata, leader of the opposition Patriotic Front (PF) withdrew an election petition against President Rupiah Banda in the Supreme Court, saying he did not trust the independence of the judiciary because the chief justice is the presiding officer for presidential elections, and also forms part of the bench in the event of an election petition.

“The chief justice is the returning officer in an election, and also a member of the Supreme Court, in this case Justice Florence Mumba is chairperson of the Electoral Commission Zambia. It is therefore wishful thinking that the Supreme Court can rule against itself,” Sata said.

The ECZ has always been headed by a judge, who like any other High Court or Supreme Court judge in the country, is appointed by the president. The ECZ’s journey has been bumpy in past years. All elections held from independence right through to the post 1991 historic multiparty polls have been characterised by inefficiency and mismanagement.

Mishandling of ballot boxes and papers, delayed start and finish of voting, insufficient electoral materials and unpaid electoral officers have been the order of the day. But following the Electoral Act of 2006 there has been a tremendous improvement, including the introduction of conflict-management committees, regular briefings for political parties and the media, and the electoral code of conduct, which have helped to improve the face of the ECZ.

Preparation for elections has generally become efficient. By consensus ballot papers are now printed in South Africa in the presence of representatives of the political parties, who are flown there and accommodated at government expense. Even when boxes are being transported and distributed, political party representatives and election observers and monitors are always present. They are also there at polling stations where all blank ballot papers are inspected. Ballot boxes are now transparent.

The counting of votes is done right from the polling station before the sealed boxes are transported to a counting centre. Last week, the government and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) signed a 14 million dollar project for the strengthening of the Zambian electoral process.

Viola Morgan, the UNDP country director, says the project will involve strengthening the effectiveness and capacity of the ECZ, continual voter registration, a legislative review process, better civic and voter education and the expansion political parties’ capacities.

Situmbeko Musokotwane, minister of finance, says under the project, the legislative review process will address itself to ensuring the incorporation of constitutional reforms that have arisen regarding the electoral process.

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