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Zambia’s violent and razor-close election is mired in controversy. Here’s why.

- September 18, 2016
Zambian President Edgar Lungu arrives to be sworn in for another term, at Heroes Stadium in Lusaka on Tuesday. (Dawood Salim/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: When originally published on Sept. 18, 2016, this post inaccurately characterized the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as having been monitors of the Zambian election. We have edited the post since its original publication to correct this error.

On Tuesday, Edgar Lungu, incumbent president of Zambia, was sworn in for a second term, even though the opposition party is contesting the election results in Zambia’s courts.

August’s elections in Zambia were the hardest-fought in a generation. Opposition supporters clashed violently with incumbent party cadres and police, which led to an unprecedented temporary ban on campaign rallies in Lusaka during July. Incumbents controversially limited free media before the elections, and opposition supporters feared that the government would manipulate the ballots. In this context, Zambia needs a means to safeguard the electoral process.

For this, many Zambians look to a longstanding coalition of Catholic, mainline Protestant and older evangelical churches. In a country that is more than 80 percent Christian, these institutions are more widely trusted and have deeper community roots than secular international observer missions. As Zambia’s attempt to democratize stalled in recent years, and disillusion with international observers mounted, this coalition of churches formalized its domestic election monitoring effort in 2014 by establishing the Christian Churches Monitoring Group (CCMG).

Today, however, CCMG has been unable to comprehensively verify the fairness of the election. This is because the government divided access to different segments of the electoral process to different international and domestic actors.

The main players in last month’s elections were the incumbent president, Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front (PF), and Hakainde Hichilema, of the United Party for National Development. Four days after the elections, Zambia’s Electoral Commission announced that President Lungu won with 50.35 percent of the vote, compared to Hichilema’s 47.63 percent.

Only 13,021 votes stood between Lungu and a runoff election. For many, this suggested fraud.

Over the last month, Hichilema contested the election in Zambian courts. Among other things, he alleged that the PF collaborated with the state’s nonpartisan electoral commission to add foreigners or deceased individuals to the voter registries — the lists of registered voters allowed to cast ballots — in order to ensure a slim margin of victory for the ruling party. Ideally, nonpartisan actors could evaluate the fairness of the election, including the voter registries.

One possible type of actor is international election observers. Yet, according to Judith Kelly, international observers may actually do more harm than good. In their research, Emily Beaulieu and Susan Hyde also find that although more and more governments are hosting international observers, incumbents still manipulate elections using less easily observable tactics, such as excluding rival candidates, advance manipulation of voter registries, or constraints on free media.

Darren Kew, Lisa Laasko and Cyril Obi argue that, in Africa, international observers from other African countries have failed to remain nonpartisan in the face of strong diplomatic interests, and Brian Klaas finds that international observers are significantly less likely to call African elections “unfree and unfair” than elections elsewhere, even when governments use the same manipulations.

In Zambia, some disillusioned civic leaders have advocated for domestic monitoring. In 2014, amid increasing political and economic instability, Zambia’s four major faith-based organizations established the Christian Churches Monitoring Group (CCMG). In majority-Christian Zambia, a plurality of Zambians belong either to mainline Protestant or Catholic denominations, and a growing number identify as evangelical. CCMG member organizations reflect this composition, and include umbrella associations for mainline Protestants, Catholics and evangelicals, as well as the Jesuit Center for Theological Reflection.

CCMG is funded by the U.S. and British development agencies, USAID and DFID, and receives technical assistance from the National Democratic Institute, a U.S. nongovernmental organization that promotes government accountability and citizen participation.

CCMG was prepared to monitor voter registration, audit the voter registries, and undertake parallel vote tabulation (PVT) on election day. In PVT methodology, election monitors transmit vote counts directly from a representative sample of polling stations to an independent data center, which uses this data to predict national election results. Election observers then compare PVT estimates with official results to confirm that vote counts were not manipulated.

But the Electoral Commission refused to let CCMG examine the voter registration rolls. Instead, the electoral commission contracted with two Kenyan consultants, Dismas Ong’ondi and Ben Chege Ngumi, to audit this important slice of the electoral process.

Although there is no direct evidence of manipulation of the rolls, the refusal to grant trusted domestic observers access to the rolls reinforces many Zambians’ skepticism of international observers. Democratization is likely to be more secure if international and domestic election monitors to establish unbreakable — and reputable — alliances.

Elizabeth Sperber, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver, is completing a book manuscript on new Christian movements in African politics. Matt Herman is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at Hunter College, CUNY, and recently volunteered as an election observer with Caritas Zambia in Lusaka.

Correction: Because of an editing error, a subhead originally read that the incumbent won by a margin of only 13,021. It has been corrected to read that the incumbent avoided a runoff by that margin.