In Zambia’s Reform Process, Political Parties Remain a Weak Link

  • R. Maxwell Bone, Mike Brodo

“In Zambia’s August 2021 elections, Hakainde Hichilema defeated then-incumbent President Edgar Lungu by a margin of over twenty percent. Lungu’s defeat and timely commitment to ensuring an orderly transition of power came after he went to great lengths during the campaign period to ensure his continuity in power. Actions taken include revision to the voter registry that opposition parties perceived as disenfranchising their voters, high levels of electoral violence that led to the deployment of security forces to opposition strongholds, and judicial action against opposition leaders on dubious legal grounds. The victory of Hichilema, a long-time opposition leader who has often been subjected to state violence and even spent time in prison, was seen as a welcome course correction after years of backsliding in what had previously been one of southern Africa’s strongest democracies. While the peaceful transfer of power in 2021 was a positive step toward restoring the stability of Zambia’s democracy, vulnerabilities remain. In Hichilema’s 15 months in power, multiple worrisome patterns that emerged during Lungu’s presidency have persisted, with the nature of the country’s political parties constituting the most significant barrier to reform and much-needed stability. In order to address this barrier, it is imperative to fully understand how these patterns have and continue to manifest themselves.

“In March 2022, the National Assembly of Zambia suspended 30 MPs from the opposition Patriotic Front (PF) party over procedural matters, an action that followed the Speaker of National Assembly barring nine PF MPs from taking their seats in December 2021 given legal challenges to their elections. For a period of time, these actions led to 76% of the PF’s MPs being suspended, in effect making it all but impossible for the opposition to carry out its most important task: government oversight. Critically, these expulsions were not decided by an independent body, but instead by the Speaker and Deputy Speaker, both of whom are senior UPND figures. These recent suspensions are not the first time such a tactic has been used to weaken the opposition in the legislature, as the previous administration regularly did so against the UPND. Ironically, at the time the UPND and Hichilema decried that such expulsions constituted an assault on democracy, only to go on and do the same when they won power. While the MPs have since taken their seats, these actions are some of the latest manifestations of a worrisome trend that has seen the legislative opposition fundamentally weakened, with serious consequences for democratic oversight and stability. …”

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