The European Union (EU) recently released its final report on Zambia’s general elections in August 2016. The EU refrains from giving the elections the coveted ‘free and fair’ stamp, but generally praises the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) for succeeding in the complicated task of holding four elections (president, MPs, councillors and mayors/chairperson) as well as a referendum on the same day. Zambia Weekly extracts the highlights from the report, which provides a good overview of the elections… and its shortcomings:

“The legal framework for the elections and referendum was substantially changed shortly before the elections. The rushed drafting process resulted in a number of unclear provisions, gaps, and contradictions (…) and meant the legal framework was unfamiliar to many electoral stakeholders. The framework provided a good basis for the conduct of genuine elections, and generally protected freedoms of assembly, movement, expression and association. However, both the provisions and the application of the Public Order Act unreasonably restricted freedom of assembly, which was to the benefit of the incumbent party.

“The ECZ prepared for the elections in a largely professional manner, and generally demonstrated competence in conducting key electoral operations. The organisation of four elections and a constitutional referendum made a heavier burden of logistics, counting, tabulation and voter education, and was reflected in some weaknesses in their implementation. Problems with the results management system contributed to slow tabulation and announcement of results. In addition, the ECZ did not allow observers to access a number of important activities, such as verification of results at national level, thus missing opportunities to enhance the transparency. Unmet expectations and delays in announcing final presidential results fuelled suspicion amongst opposition parties. The ECZ did not make full use of the administrative measures at its disposal to enforce the Electoral Code of Conduct.

“A new eligibility requirement that candidates for all elected positions have the minimum academic qualification of a completed secondary education was found to both limit the right of citizens to stand for election and the choice afforded to voters, especially at lower elected levels, and with respect to prospective female candidates and those from rural areas. A significant increase in the non-refundable candidate registration fees exacerbated this. Only 26 women were elected as members of parliament.

“Candidates and parties campaigned vigorously, and usually respected campaign regulations. However, throughout the campaign, both the PF and the UPND made statements that inflamed tensions. There were several serious incidents of violence, including the death of a UPND supporter in Lusaka. The subsequent suspension of the campaign by the ECZ in Lusaka and Namwala Districts was a disproportionate response. A narrative was developed by the ruling party to portray the opposition as violent and trouble-making.

“The campaign period was marred by systematic bias in state media, which failed to provide fair and equitable coverage of all parties, limiting the possibility for voters to make an informed choice. News coverage of the state broadcaster was biased in favour of the PF, and largely excluded other parties, or only reported other parties negatively. Restrictions on private newspaper ‘The Post’ constituted a serious infringement on freedom of expression during the campaign.

“Voting was conducted in a calm atmosphere. Observers were able to observe the voting process without restriction in virtually all polling streams. Party agents were seen in all polling streams. The protracted counting of five different ballot papers at polling streams, followed by results consolidation at polling stations, introduced the possibility of computational error. The quality of this part of the process was assessed considerably worse than that of voting procedures. Copies of results forms were sometimes not provided to party agents. In 38% of cases, results were not posted outside the polling station. Tabulation of results at constituency level was positively assessed in 87% of the 40 totalling centres observed.

“The UPND filed a challenge to the presidential election results (…) based on arguments pertaining to both the electoral environment, such as bias in the public media, restrictions on movement and campaigning, as well as alleged irregularities during polling, counting, tallying, transmission and announcement of results.

“During the preliminary hearings of the petition, the Independent Broadcasting Authority suspended the broadcasting licenses of three media outlets. The largest privately-owned television channel, Muvi TV, which had provided extensive coverage to the UPND during the campaign, had planned to provide extensive coverage of the petition. The suspension of the licenses of these media for alleged professional misconduct before, during and after the elections, and for posing unspecified risks to national peace and stability, was another setback for freedom of expression, at a sensitive moment of the electoral process.

“The UPND petition was dismissed on procedural grounds, without any evidence being heard, when the court, in a split decision, ruled it did not have jurisdiction to extend the 14-day constitutional period for hearing the petition. While most of the 14 days were spent dealing with preliminary issues raised by UPND, prompting allegations that UPND was intentionally stalling due to its weak legal case, the court failed to provide clear, timely and authoritative directions regarding the timeline of the trial. This ultimately resulted in a situation where the petitioners could not exercise their right to a fair and public hearing, and undermined public confidence.”

The EU concluded by issuing a list of recommendation on how to address the shortcomings. They can be read in the full report.

The European Union Election Observation Mission was present in Zambia from 29 June to 12 September 2016. It deployed 124 observers across Zambia, observing voting procedures at 520 polling streams in all 10 provinces.