Election rigging in many of Africa’s democracies occurs through a range of strategies, such as ballot-box stuffing, electoral bribery, violence against political opponents and the emasculation of the independent media that usually serve as the main outlet for opposition parties denied coverage in state-run publications. Other tactics involve putting dead voters on the electoral register, creating irregularities to obstruct voters and, more recently, using fake news to sway the electoral outcome.
These strategies have been used to varying success, but they are not as common as they once were. Their susceptibility to failure and the infectious willingness by the judiciary to nullify fraudulently won elections, as happened recently in Kenya and Malawi, has prompted incumbent presidents elsewhere to devise more sophisticated and subtle ways of guaranteeing they stay in power. A clear example is Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu. Ahead of the general election in August 2021, he devised a twofold strategy that would eliminate the possibility of removing him from power through the ballot.
Step 1: Amend the Constitution
The first mechanism Lungu created to shape the outcome of the 2021 presidential election is an amendment to the Constitution that enables the formation of a coalition government if none of the candidates get more than 50% of the total valid votes cast. The Constitution currently allows a second ballot between the top two candidates.
Lungu barely scraped a victory in the last general election in 2016, winning by 50.3%. This time, he is not taking any chances. His governing Patriotic Front (PF) party has taken to Parliament a Constitution of Zambia (Amendment) Bill Number 10 of 2019 which proposes another stage to Zambia’s election between the first vote and a potential run-off.
In this middle stage, if no presidential candidate has won more than 50% in the first round, then the leading candidate, but no other candidate, could propose a coalition with a losing candidate of their choice, with the only requirement being that “the combined votes of that presidential candidate and the preferred presidential candidate forming the coalition government meet the threshold of form than 50% of the valid votes cast”. It retains the existing constitutional provision on the run-off, but only if the presidential candidate with the highest number of votes fails to form a coalition government within the specified time period.
This suggests Lungu is anticipating another close election where he may emerge with more votes than his rivals but fall short of the required 50% + 1 vote threshold. In this instance, just an extra 2% or 3% may be needed to form a winning majority. This will probably come from smaller, Lungu-friendly parties that are in opposition in name only. Their votes total may be tiny, but this amendment could turn them into kingmakers. The much-criticised Bill requires the support of two-thirds of the MPs to pass. If all MPs from the main opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) manage to remain resilient to bribery, the Bill won’t be passed.
Step 2: Abolish the voters’ roll
The second way Lungu is rigging the election is by abolishing the current voters’ register, numbering six million electors, and creating a new one favourable to his prospects. Senior figures in the PF said Lungu is afraid he will lose the 2021 poll if the voters’ roll used in the last general election is not discarded. His fears are not unfounded. He was first elected in the 2015 presidential by-election that followed Michael Sata’s untimely death in office. He was re-elected in the disputed 2016 polls, narrowly defeating Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the UPND.
In both elections, Lungu finished first in the same six of Zambia’s 10 provinces and Hichilema finished first in four provinces. Lungu knows he is in trouble because Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) data shows that voter turnout was, on average, higher in the regions won by his rival compared with those that voted for him. In both 2015 and 2016, he won his heartlands with comparatively smaller margins than his nearest rival won his strongholds. In the 2016 election, for instance, Lungu received 42 902 and 46 255 votes in the Southern and Western provinces, and Hichilema got 527 893 and 226 722 votes, respectively. In the Copperbelt and Lusaka provinces, Lungu received 345 275 and 375 760 votes, and Hichilema 189 562 and 242 172 votes, respectively.
If this pattern continues, one thing is clear: Lungu, whose support in urban areas is likely to decrease because of Zambia’s faltering economy, will not win the next general election.
Sources in the commission said Lungu exerted significant pressure on the electoral body to abolish the permanent register rather than updating it, as required by law, and as has been done in each election since 2005 when it was first created. The electoral commission announced in June that it would discard the register. On 21 September, days after using the same register to hold a series of parliamentary and local government by-elections, the commission told citizens that their registrations would no longer be valid: “If you do not register, you will not vote in the 2021 general election. The current voters’ card will not be used in the 2021 general election.”
Recognising the limited time that remains before the 2021 election — less than 10 months — the commission pledged to allocate not more than 30 days to the voter registration exercise, starting on 28 October. By using the commission this way, Lungu hopes to disenfranchise as many opposition supporters as possible. Three of the four provinces in which Hichilema retains huge support, for instance, are in rural areas. Limited publicity about the commission’s plans to abolish the existing register, the long distances to the nearest administrative centres, the onset of the rainy season (which starts in late October), and the limited time available to complete the exercise will undermine the capacity of voters in these areas to take part in the voter registration. Moreover, the commission has admitted that the government has not provided it with sufficient funds for the exercise.
The current register was created over an 11-year period. The commission now says it is seeking to capture nine million voters within 30 days — a near impossibility. It has promised to complement mobile registration of voters with online registration, which it launched with 16 000 entries on 21 September. In addition to the lack of legislation to provide for online voter registration, there is also no experience of doing this in Zambia, a country with very limited internet penetration, especially in rural constituencies.
Moreover, in the absence of a clear regulatory framework to manage the exercise, the online registration system is open to misuse and fraud. It is not impossible to create a largely fake electorate that will mainly vote for the incumbent. A legal challenge filed by citizens seeking to halt the commission’s decision to discard a valid and lawfully established voters’ register was postponed after the high court judge-in-charge, who had earlier allocated the case to herself, stayed away on the day she was due to hear it, using the excuse that she had been exposed to Covid-19.
Taken together, these developments suggest that Lungu is, in effect, establishing the administrative, legal and constitutional mechanism for perpetuating his stay in office. Should his two main strategies fail, he is reported to have another card up his sleeve: strike a major blow against the opposition using electoral exclusion. Recent weeks have seen intense speculation in local media that Lungu harbours plans to arrest Hichilema on a trumped-up charge. If there is substance to this allegation, the objective would presumably be to secure a dubious conviction that would disqualify his main rival from the 2021 race.
The shrunken space for civil society to mobilise against his illegitimate actions, the weaknesses of the political opposition and the willingness of the judiciary to bow to presidential power mean that he is likely to succeed in his attempt to fix the outcome of next year’s election.
By undermining elections, the Constitution and the judiciary, Lungu is weakening the very institutions that offer long-term hope for democratic consolidation. And by making it nearly impossible to democratically oppose him, the president is effectively eliminating lawful means of political competition for the occupation of government and is increasing the risk of large-scale civil unrest and violence. Zambia was once highly regarded as a model of democracy in Africa. It is now deep into a slide, not so much into dictatorship as chaos.
Many people within and beyond have yet to come to terms with the country’s changing political character. By the time they do, it might be too late.