By-elections galore in Zambia: Is parliamentary democracy under threat?

Complaints about the number and cost of parliamentary by-elections continue unabated in 2013, raising questions about the viability of Zambia’s multiparty democracy.

Complaints about the number and cost of parliamentary by-elections held since the Patriotic Front (PF) came into power continue unabated in 2013, along with controversy about the viability and future of Zambia’s multiparty democracy. In total, 31 by-elections have been called since the PF won elections in September 2011. Eleven of the 31 were as a result of defections to the ruling party, three due to the death of sitting members of parliament (MPs), and seven because of court nullifications petitioned by losing PF candidates. There are currently eight vacant parliamentary seats awaiting by-elections, all due to court nullifications and the defection of sitting MPs from the main opposition Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) to the ruling PF. Another two seats await court determination following the expulsion of MPs from the United Party for National Development (UPND) for accepting ministerial positions in the PF government. The overall result is a fundamental alteration in the political power configuration of Zambia’s 158-member parliament formed after general elections in 2011.

Importantly, the 2011 elections produced a hung parliament, with the parliamentary configuration tilting in favour of the opposition. The PF won 60 seats, the opposition MMD 55 seats, the UPND 28 seats; independent candidates three seats; and the Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD) and the Alliance for Democracy and Development (ADD) one seat each. The total number of opposition parliamentarians came to 88. However, soon after the elections, some MMD parliamentarians resigned to join the ruling PF. As of June 2013, PF numbers have swelled to 69 thanks to defections from the MMD, whose numbers have dropped to 40. The numbers of the other opposition parties remain largely unchanged, with only the independents dropping to two. In the current parliamentary configuration, ruling party MPs far outnumber those of each of the opposition parties. President Michael Sata and his PF need only two seats to secure an absolute majority in parliament and 29 to reach a two-thirds majority.

While by-elections are in accordance with Zambia’s electoral laws, there are anxieties that the PF is in the process of engineering a de facto one-party state. Zambia was a de facto one-party state until 2001, when the combined opposition parties garnered more MPs than the then ruling MMD. This scenario was short-lived as MPs from UPND, the United National Independence Party (UNIP) and the Heritage Party were ‘bought’ with ministerial positions and other government appointments. An interesting development at the time was that the ruling party experienced problems in electing the Speaker of the National Assembly because it had fewer MPs than the opposition. However, two opposition MPs were subsequently ‘bought’ to vote with the ruling party to produce the Speaker.

The stand-off between government and the opposition in passing bills and other government-sponsored motions led to underhanded methods aimed at weakening the opposition by targeting ‘weakling’ MPs. At the time of the 2006 elections, the number of opposition MPs had significantly dwindled. However, like the 2011 elections, the 2006 elections produced a majority opposition with the PF’s 49 members serving as the largest opposition party in the House. Although the PF tried to maintain cohesion in its rank and file, the party crumbled in 2007 when late President Levy Mwanawasa appointed the National Constitutional Conference (NCC) and 22 of its MPs defied the party by participating in the process. The party later expelled these MPs, but they held on to their seats until the 2011 elections because of a court injunction. The expelled 22 shifted their loyalty to the ruling MMD, which created a de facto one-party parliament.

Although attributing the by-elections and defections exclusively to the PF would be inaccurate, the PF does have a notorious ‘three-pronged’ approach to reducing the number of opposition MPs. The first is inciting ‘weaklings’ to resign from their parties with automatic membership in the PF and employment in the diplomatic service. The second is the lure of appointments to deputy ministerial positions – 15 opposition MPs have thus far defected to the PF in this way. The third strategy is court nullification of constituency seats. The PF has petitioned 50 seats since the last election and have won over five. This strategy has been made possible by weaknesses in the country’s political party system and a PF-created reality that the political wilderness is best averted by joining the PF.

Another caveat in the PF pursuit of a parliamentary majority is the on-going constitution-making process. Repeated delays in releasing the final revised document to the Presidency and the public have raised speculation that the PF is seeking a two-thirds majority in parliament to eventually enable it to reject aspects of the draft. These include contentious provisions around the 50%-plus-one majority vote for presidential candidates to be declared the outright winner; the appointment of ministers outside parliament; and the presidential age limit of 75, among others. The above is supported by an emerging trend in parliament where the Executive no longer presents bills that ordinarily would be debated, but issues statutory instruments instead.

The forgoing dynamics have arguably established the PF’s ‘track record’ in inducing defections, and this will progressively become harder to alter. Factional politics and single-party-dominant political systems are known to lead to the downfall of parliamentary democracy and even the temporary suspension of democratic institutions through the imposition of presidential rule, for example. If events since the last elections are any indication, the opposition will be left with a paper-thin majority in parliament by the end of the year.

Three general consequences can be expected to flow from the above patterns. The first is financial. One by-election costs approximately KR5 million or US$1,4 million. The budget for by-elections is exhausted and with many still to be conducted, questions about the PF’s governance style and budget management in particular have increased. Government’s unilateral move to remove subsidies for fuel and agricultural goods in May 2013 has been widely interpreted as an attempt to raise funds for the unremitting by-elections. The money could have been used to protect the 68% of the country’s population living below the poverty line against the impact of rising food and fuel prices.

Second, the issue of limited opposition space in parliament will be reinforced by the existing constrained space for their activities outside parliament. For instance, the provisions of the Public Order Act have often been used by the PF to prevent the opposition from holding public rallies or visiting their constituencies, even in the markets. This will significantly dampen opposition parties’ ability to mobilise.

Third, and with the above in mind, civil society will increasingly be required to reclaim its space in the governance of the country and act in the capacity of the opposition. Cowardice and quiet diplomacy have characterised civil society and the church since the PF assumed power, and an awakening is urgently needed. While a ban on MPs defecting is very unlikely under the PF rule, it is clear that without any immediate interventions, Zambia’s democratic deficit will continue to grow.

Dimpho Motsamai, Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria and McDonald Chipenzi, Director, Foundation for Democratic Process (FODEP), Lusaka, Zambia

Related content