Friday, November 20, 2009

Election violence

Election violence
By Editor
Fri 20 Nov. 2009, 04:01 CAT

It is difficult to understand how or why a parliamentary by-election should bring so much violence to Solwezi. Why should people try to kill or maim each other over a parliamentary seat?

Probably we are naïve to think that democratic elections are not a fight for survival where people should kill or maim to triumph, but a competition to serve.

Probably we live in another world to think that political competitors in an election don’t necessarily have to like each other, but must tolerate one another and acknowledge that each has a legitimate and important role to play. Moreover, the ground rules of society must encourage tolerance and civility in the way people seek public office.

How can we expect citizens to have confidence in the results of an election that is so much characterised by violence and intimidation that the winner indeed reflects their wish?

We believe that elections are the central institution of democratic representative government because in a democracy, the authority of the representatives derives solely from the consent of those who vote.

And the principle mechanism of realising this is the holding of free and fair elections. Elections marred by violence and intimidation can never be said to be free and fair. Why? The simple answer is it is not possible under such elections for people to freely express their will or wish because fear of violence and intimidation may force them to vote against their will for one who is able to bully them the most.

Simply permitting people to access the ballot box is not enough. Elections in which people are harassed or are intimidated are not democratic.

Moreover, we don’t see how people who are fighting each other in this way will co-operate in solving the common problems of Solwezi after today. In a democracy, when the election is over, the losers are expected to accept the judgment of the voters.

And no matter who wins, both sides agree to co-operate in solving the common problems of society. But this is not possible in elections where people have been trying to kill each other, maim each other.

The violence that has been witnessed in Solwezi and other parliamentary by-elections held over the last 12 months, if they are anything to go by, we should brace ourselves for more violence as we approach the 2011 elections where the stakes will be much higher.

Violence must surely rank as one of the worst forms of immorality in human affairs. We can see the horror of this in people who go out of their way to organise violence or injure, maim someone who belongs to another political party. The results of the violence in Solwezi that is depicted in the pictures on our front page today ought to make those who boast of their right to stay in power ponder over the things we have heard about in other barbaric societies. A sub-culture of blood is nursed with speeches at rallies endlessly. How is this possible in a country that has declared itself Christian?

We have always held the view that elections are an opportunity for our people to vote or choose their representatives wisely and vote only for people who are known for their honesty, ability, dedication and concern for the welfare of all. But today, what we see is something else: elections have become an opportunity for people to maim or attempt to kill each other.

Violence, as we have seen, can do only one thing, and that is to breed counter-violence. People who go out to maim, injure or attempt to kill others simply because they belong to a different political party are no better than animals.

We hope our politicians and their followers will reach a stage where they realise that the use of violence against anyone is something that puts them next to animals.

An electoral process is supposed to be an alternative to violence as it is a means of achieving governance and not a clarion call to violence, barbarism. But most often, it is when an electoral process is perceived as unfair, unresponsive, or corrupt, that its political legitimacy is compromised and stakeholders are motivated to go outside established norms, resort to violence to achieve their objectives. In this way, electoral violence and intimidation become tactics in political competition. Elections that are characterised by violence and intimidation do not produce results that produce peace and good governance; they instead produce results that perpetrate violence, mistrust and are not a recipe for governing well.

We know that violence and intimidation are being employed to determine or otherwise influence the results of the elections. When violence and intimidation are employed in an election, it is not a result of an electoral process; it is the breakdown of an electoral process. Elections are supposed to be the mechanisms by which public questions are resolved and public contests are determined.

Among the factors that make election violence possible and indeed likely in Zambia are deepening poverty, unemployment and hunger, manipulation of ethnic loyalties, and an attempt to rig future elections. But the great danger that lurks in this violence is that when an electoral process becomes violent, its function as an umpire for social decision-making is damaged. The failure to conduct an election that is judged fair by all sides can seriously damage our whole democratic process. This can lead to violence and chronic instability.

It is therefore important that every effort is made to contain the current violence that is increasingly starting to characterise our elections by determining its causes and directing resources toward its management or resolution.

What appears to be seriously weak in our system, and something that is encouraging violence, is our poor election dispute mechanism. The Electoral Commission of Zambia, together with the police, does not seem capable of resolving grievances and serve as a conflict prevention or resolution mechanism. Election disputes are inherent in elections. Challenging an election, its conduct or results, should however not be perceived as a reflection of weakness in the system, but as proof of the strength, vitality and openness of the electoral system.

And moreover, those participating in elections should realise that politics is an area of great importance for promoting justice and peace in the nation. And as such, they should regard it as a vocation, a way of building up society for the common good. And when people think only of themselves, of their political party, then there is division and frustration and violence sets in.

Peace in the nation is the fruit of honesty and solidarity in the conduct of public affairs, including elections; it is the tranquility of order. And to guarantee peace, all are called to maturity, tolerance and responsibility. Voting should be considered a citizen responsibility and not something we should kill each other over.

We urge our politicians and all our leaders to pay a lot of attention to this election violence that seems to be growing instead of reducing before it gets out of control and our country is rendered a failed state.

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