Thursday, February 17, 2011

Preparing for credible free, fair elections

Preparing for credible free, fair elections
By The Post
Thu 17 Feb. 2011, 04:00 CAT

The call on Rupiah Banda and his government by the heads of the Council of Churches in Zambia “to deliberately pay attention to the concerns and complaints of all electoral players so that a level playing field and a good electoral system are instituted for the 2011 elections” deserves to be heeded.

There is need for Rupiah and his government to realise that they have a serious responsibility. As facilitators of the elections, they should ensure that concerns of all key players are adequately addressed.

We need religious institutions to continue to be the conscience of society, a moral custodian and a fearless champion of the interests of the weak and downtrodden.

As we have stated before, to have peaceful, free and fair elections, certain conditions have to prevail in our country and in our hearts. All the key electoral players have to agree on the conditions under which this year’s elections would be held. And Rupiah and his government have to conduct themselves in a manner that does not put those in the opposition at an unfair disadvantage. There ought to be transparency in the organisation of this year’s elections. And as the heads of the Council of Churches in Zambia have correctly observed, to have peaceful, free and fair elections, dialogue is required. Dialogue, listening to others’ concerns is not a choice for Rupiah and his government and indeed for those in the opposition. It is a must. We say this because in dialogue, one can compare different points of view and examine disagreements.

And when we say we need peaceful, free and fair elections, we are not simply referring to elections without violence. We are talking about the right ordering of things which must be actualised by people thirsting after an ever more perfect reign of justice. It is said that if peace is to be established, the primary requisite is to eradicate the cause of dissension between people. It is important therefore to maintain and strengthen our electoral structures if we are to enjoy peaceful, free and fair elections.

There is need for Rupiah and his government to level the political playing field ahead of this year’s elections. And we urge all our politicians to respond favourably to the Council of Churches in Zambia’s appeal to them and their political parties to meet and discuss and iron out all contentious issues to do with the political playing field ahead of this year’s elections. And as the Church leaders have recommended, the discussions should also include agreements on how the state media and the public order Act governing campaigns will be applied fairly. We say this because simply permitting the opposition access to the ballot is not enough. Elections in which the ruling party, the MMD, and its leaders monopolise the use of the state- owned media at the exclusion or marginalisation of the opposition cannot be said to be free and fair or held under an atmosphere where the political playing field is level. This also applies to the holding of campaign rallies. Elections in which the opposition has its rallies curtailed or harassed by the police cannot be said to be free and fair. In saying all this, we are mindful of the legitimate advantages of incumbency, but the rules and conduct of the election contest must be fair. This also calls for a representative Electoral Commission of Zambia. To be seen to be independent, the Electoral Commission should comprise representatives from all the key electoral players, that is, representatives from key political parties, the main non-political bodies and impartial observers. An Electoral Commission where the chairperson and all the other commissioners are appointed by the president without any input from other key stakeholders cannot increase the independence of the Commission and public confidence in it. Therefore, the Church’s appeal to Rupiah to help restore confidence in the Electoral Commission of Zambia should start by increasing the participation of other players in appointing commissioners and other key directors of the Electoral Commission.

We also make an appeal to the opposition political parties about the need for them to be open and constructive in participating in the electoral process and in addressing all the problems that may arise.

It is clear to us that the Church makes a difference when it gets fully involved in national affairs. And for this reason, we highly welcome the initiative of the heads of the Council of Churches in Zambia to meet Rupiah and discuss with him issues pertaining to the peace and stability of our nation, especially as we approach this year’s elections. Church leaders are obliged by their faith to provide spiritual guidance, especially at a crucial time like this. It is clear that the Church values the democratic system in-as-much as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate.

Free and fair elections in choosing leaders are absolutely necessary in a democratic process. It is sad when elections are marred with unfairness and violence. It is essential for Rupiah and the ruling MMD and its government and for the opposition political parties to respect people’s voice and choice. Respect for human dignity requires that elections are conducted well. Elections should never be a matter of fraud or coercion since that would break the sacred character of democracy. Good elections require responsible participation of all. And equal opportunities should be given to all the political parties and persons in the political campaign. All should be accorded adequate security to hold their rallies. The use of the state-owned media has to be open to all without restrictions. All political leaders should make a positive contribution to peaceful, fair and free elections by rejecting violence in the strongest terms and by teaching their followers or supporters to be tolerant. It is only in that way that we can have peaceful elections and remain united after elections.

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