Thursday, December 30, 2010

‘Free and fair’ elections the Rupiah way

‘Free and fair’ elections the Rupiah way
By The Post
Thu 30 Dec. 2010, 04:00 CAT

TO have peaceful, free and fair elections in 2011, certain conditions have to prevail in our country and in our hearts. There ought to be a conducive atmosphere. The major players have to agree on the conditions under which these elections would be held.

And the contestants in these elections have to conduct themselves in a manner that does not put others at an unfair disadvantage. There ought to be transparency in all aspects of the electoral process, except the marking of the ballot itself by the voter which has to be done in some privacy. The voter registration exercise needs to be carried out in a manner that is transparent and equitable in all the areas of our country.

Constructive dialogue should be encouraged at all times on key electoral issues such as the constitution, the electoral Act and indeed voter registration. All key political parties should have equal access to the publicly owned media. And the state-owned media has a duty to report political campaigns fairly and accurately. As things stand today, the ruling MMD has turned the state-owned media into some sort of private property owned by itself which reports exclusively and in the most favourable way for it. This is not correct. This is not the way things should be.

The voter registration exercise that starts with the issuance of national registration cards has also been tilted in favour of the ruling MMD. More effort has been put to increase the number of registered voters in Rupiah Banda’s stronghold of Eastern Province. It was not easy to get the number of registered voters in Eastern Province to over 500,000; it took a lot of effort to achieve this figure. And it cannot be denied that this effort has not been replicated in other areas where the opposition dominate. This exercise needs to be carried out in the most transparent manner. There should be no secrecy about it. And all the key political players need to know what is happening on this score.

As Tilyenji Kaunda, the president of opposition UNIP, has pointed out, there’s much more that needs to be done before Rupiah can promise Zambians of free and fair elections in 2011. And there will be no one who will take his words seriously if they are not matched by deeds such as the necessary amendments to the Constitution and the electoral Act that many stakeholders have been demanding.

And currently Rupiah enjoys the exclusive control of the Electoral Commission of Zambia. All the key decision makers at the Electoral Commission are his appointees. And the composition and structure of the Electoral Commission leaves much to be desired. An analysis of the key people there will reveal that they are predominantly people connected, in one way or another, to Rupiah. This is not good for the conduct of elections that must be accepted by all as free and fair and therefore a true expression of the will of the people of Zambia. There’s urgent need for an independent Electoral Commission comprised of representatives from all key political parties, the main non-political bodies and impartial observers.

And Tilyenji is very clear on this score: “We cannot trust President Banda when he controls the institutions that handle elections. He is in charge, we can’t trust him. We will not depend on the heart or goodwill of one man, but on proper laws and systems…we will only trust President Banda’s promise if the necessary and particular amendments to the electoral Act that Zambians want are dealt with. We don’t care who is voted into power, but what is important is that the elections are transparent.”

And it is not only the Electoral Commission that Rupiah controls. He also controls the ministries of home affairs and of local government and housing. These two ministries are heavily involved, in one way or another, in the conduct of elections. And they are not under the direct control of the Electoral Commission of Zambia. The issuance of National Registration Cards, which one needs to obtain to be able to register as a voter, is directly under the control of the Ministry of Home Affairs - a ministry Rupiah controls. And the police who in many ways facilitate the holding of elections are also under the control and supervision of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

It is a fact that a large part of the electoral process is handled by the Ministry of Local Government and Housing. Most of the officials, if not all, who preside at polling stations and other counting centres, who supervise the transportation of ballot papers and do a lot of other things to facilitate the holding of elections, come from the Ministry of Local Government and Housing. And some officers from other state agencies, like the intelligence services, have been strategically placed in this ministry for that purpose. And all these are under the control of Rupiah, his ministers and the technocrats serving as permanent secretaries and directors he has handpicked.

It cannot also be denied that the media, and in this case, the state-owned media, does play a role in the electoral process. But also the key managers of state-owned media organisations are under the control of Rupiah and his appointees. Other stakeholders have no role whatsoever in their appointments. And as such they don’t care much about how they report on them. They are at the service of Rupiah, the appointing authority, and not the people or other key political players who are competitors of his.

In the light of all these issues, we join Tilyenji in making a special appeal to Rupiah and his government and the ruling MMD to realise that they have a serious responsibility. As facilitators of the elections, they should ensure that the concerns of all key players are adequately addressed.

We also make an appeal to the opposition political parties and their leaders about the need for them to be open and constructive in participating in the electoral process and in addressing the issues Tilyenji and others have raised concerning the electoral process. We shouldn’t forget that democracy thrives on openness and accountability, with one very important exception: the act of voting itself. Everything else must be conducted as openly as possible, so that citizens are confident that the results of the elections in which they have voted are accurate and that the government that will arise from such elections does, indeed, rest upon their consent.

Simply permitting the opposition political parties and their candidates access to the ballot is not enough to guarantee peaceful, free and fair elections. While we appreciate the fact that the party in power may enjoy the advantages of incumbency, the rules and conduct of the election contest must be fair and acceptable to all the key political players.

And in this way we will be assured that when the election is over, the losers will accept the judgement of the voters and if they don’t they will just end up looking stupid. In this way we will be guaranteed that after the elections, there will be peace and harmony in our country and the losers and the winners will be able to work together to strengthen our multiparty political system. In this way those in the opposition and those in government will, in essence, be able to share a common commitment to the basic values of being in a multiparty democracy.

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