- In this case, 64 ex-ministers were supposed to pay back salaries and allowances. This followed the court’s judgement of August 8, 2016 which ordered the ministers to pay back to the State all the allowances and salaries they received when Parliament was dissolved.
By MUBANGA LUCHEMBE
WHEN UPND spokesperson Charles Kakoma warned the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) to stop registering inmates because if not, they would fuel chaos in the country, he acted as if the 2017 Constitutional Court Judgement in the Case of Godfrey Malembeka versus the Attorney General, which validated the right to vote among prisoners under lawful custody did not exist.
Observers were therefore surprised to see the UPND leaders and their supporters rejoice over the Constitutional Court’s ruling which had given former Cabinet ministers, their deputies and provincial ministers 30 days in which to pay back over K4.2 million which they got from the government in 2016.
In this case, 64 ex-ministers were supposed to pay back salaries and allowances. This followed the court’s judgement of August 8, 2016 which ordered the ministers to pay back to the State all the allowances and salaries they received when Parliament was dissolved.
The Law Association of Zambia (LAZ) and UPND general secretary Stephen Katuka challenged the continued stay of the ministers after Parliament was dissolved ahead of the 2016 general elections and the case was decided in their favour.
That’s when keen observers predictably asked themselves the question: “When does UPND abide by the Constitutional Court’s judgements, and why does it selectively disrespect others that don’t suit it?”
Besides, why should UPND warn the ECZ to stop registering inmates and yet the latter was simply complying with the Constitutional Court’s judgement of 2017?
Why should UPND force the ECZ to unlawfully act and risk being cited for Contempt of Court? UPND, a party that was once regarded as a beacon of political and general morality by many in the country, seems set on the path to political self-destruction if accusations of its unwarranted-attacks on the ECZ are anything to go by. Its leaders are adopting increasingly combative approaches.
By pushing their – often false – complaints onto the streets as much as in the courts, UPND leaders have learnt how to deprive the government of the popular goodwill and international credibility it needs to govern effectively.
But there is a danger. In doing so, UPND risks triggering a repressive backlash from the government seemingly entrenched in retaining power.
Moreover, opposition parties in our country enter elections knowing that they have little chance of winning. So it should not come as a surprise that more opposition parties and opposition-allied NGOs are attempting to shift the battleground to the court of public opinion. As well as increasing the pressure on Constitutional Court judges and Western ambassadors to act, effectively discrediting the ECZ and elections can harm the government’s reputation. This is true even if the official election results are ultimately allowed to stand.
Apparently, the complete version of this opposition playbook involves five main steps. But, in practice opposition parties tend to use only some, depending on the situation:
Lay the foundations. In the upcoming elections next year, UPND leaders have already begun to allege that the process was being manipulated well ahead of the voting day. This has encouraged journalists to look for evidence of irregularities, and generated popular expectations that the process would be problematic. One of the most effective ways to achieve this is to consistently challenge electoral preparations. Examples include alleging bias in the mobile issuance of NRCs and voter registration processes, and corruption in the Dubai-based procurement of ballot papers.
Direct the blame. Allegations of wrongdoing are most effective when they are personalised. So, UPND leaders typically seek to demonise prominent members of the electoral commission. For example, social media platforms are used to circulate rumours that senior electoral commission officials had been compromised by the ruling party, and are alleged to have received bribes.
In countries like ours, these rumours often go unsubstantiated, but are nonetheless widely believed by party supporters, and by UPND-allied NGOs like GEARS, ActionAid, OCiDA and CiSCA.
Claim victory. An election can only be discredited if it is plausible that the opposition actually won. Thus, canny UPND leaders spend a lot of time during the campaign and the counting of the votes claiming they have the momentum and are destined to win. This is usually followed by a press conference shortly after the ruling party’s victory has been declared to denounce the results, and claim that the opposition has evidence of systematic wrongdoing. This happened in 2016, when the UPND five-time presidential losing candidate slammed the process as “rigged.”
Protest early, protest often. Opposition parties often have a strong support base in cities, towns and peri-urban areas. The greater access to information and more densely packed voters makes it easier for them to mobilise support. This makes it possible to hold large protests, especially if civil society groups are also active and influential.
Demand action. Having seen many disputed election results allowed to stand, African opposition leaders are increasingly willing to call out judges and the international community. This often includes refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the president, explicitly criticising international observers who fail to condemn the elections, and insisting that Western ambassadors accredited to their respective countries intervene to promote democracy.
In Malawi, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition made it “the year of mass protests” in the run-up to the Constitutional Court’s judgement. This kept the pressure on the judges to make sure they would not be tempted to brush complaints under the carpet.
Yet in Zambia, publicly discrediting ECZ officials and elections can help to uncover and deter electoral incompetence and manipulation. But, it’s a dangerous strategy. Given the risks involved, it’s noteworthy however, that discrediting an election very rarely means winning one. Showing that the electoral process was flawed can hurt the government, but does not usually lead to its defeat – at least in the short-term.
One thing is for sure – UPND’s red-flagged narrative to stop the ECZ from registering inmates – unwittingly hinted at its hidden-motives for mimicking Malawi’s “year of mass protests” come 2021. Where this will leave the ECZ is anyone’s guess.