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Zambia at a crucial stage with electoral and constitutional reform: think tank

President Edgar Lungu in Lusaka, October 18, 2015
President Edgar Lungu in Lusaka, October 18, 2015 AFP PHOTO/SALIM DAWOOD

Zambia’s government has a number of important decisions to take as the 11 August election draws near. The whole electoral and constitutional reform process is at a crucial stage as some 30 electoral acts need to be amended by parliament before it is dissolved by President Edgar Lungu on 11 May.

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Zambia constitutional referendum issues

The electoral code of conduct which is embedded in the electoral act needs to be modifed before parliament is dissolved, says Boniface Cheembe, executive director for the Southern African Center for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, SACCORD in Lusaka.

“It’s a big dilemma that really leaves the country at a crossroads,” he told RFI.

“We are also trying to figure out how the government will amend all these pieces of legislation in the readiness for the 2016 general elections in view that we have little over a month before parliament stands dissolved,” he added.

Lungu signed the Constitutional Amendment Bill in January, which excludes the Bill of Rights and a number of electoral acts.

“The president signed into law an amended constitution, doing away with what the people of Zambia had long wanted--that is, to have a wholly new constitution,” added Cheembe.

Referendum issues

The Bill of Rights, which would guarantee social, economic and basic freedoms for all Zambians, can only be voted on via referendum. The government has decided to streamline the voting process and has added it to number of items when Zambians go to the polls on 11 August.

“The referendum on the Bill of Rights is an independent issue, it’s a non-partisan issue, so it might be overshadowed by the actual elections,” said Martha Chilongoshi, an independent blogger in Lusaka who writes on good governance.

In order for people to know what they are voting for they need to be informed, she said, adding that there is not a lot of time to ensure people know what rights are enshrined in the law.

“In a country with high illiteracy, there are a lot of ballots,” added Cheembe.

Chilongoshi contends that there is a governmental commission put into place to oversee the conducting of the referendum, but questions if it will have enough time to educate voters.

“Is three months adequate to educate people on every single thing they need to know, what’s in the bill of rights, and what they will be voting for?” she said.

Not everyone is unhappy about including the referendum with the ballot.

“In Zambia right now, our economy is not doing well,” said Andrew Ntewewe, the president of the Young African Leaders Institute, YALI. “If we have a referendum alongside the general elections, it will be very cost effective,” he added.

Ntewewe is currently in Copperbelt, where YALI is holding one of its regional sensitization seminars on the vote and the bill of rights.

“If you don’t hold a referendum on the Bill of Rights this year, and you suggest you hold it next year, what are the chances that it will even be successful? Because Zambians are fatigued,” said Ntewewe.

According to the International Institute for Democracy and Assistance in Stockholm, Sweden, only 32 percent of registered voters came out for the elections in January 2015 after the death of President Michael Sata.

“The issue of the bill of rights is something that all of us are agreed on. It is not something where there is an opposite view,” said Ntewewe. “The education that has to go to the people, is simply to go and vote yes, so that Zambians can have the bill of rights,” he added.

But questions remain as to what gay rights are included in the Bill of Rights, according to a statement from Christopher Montlanthe Mumba, an International Indigenous Working Group on HIV and AIDS, IIWGHA, leader in Lusaka.

Doubts were cast on the inclusion of LGBT rights, which the Zambian judicial system consider illegal alongside the fundamental rights and freedoms of sex workers,” he said.

Ultimately, said Cheembe, it is up to parliament to amend electoral laws before 11 May if a smooth vote is to be assured, but added that coupling the referendum with general elections is a way for the Lungu administration to get a major issue out of the way.

“We believe that if they were to win the elections, they want to bury this whole issue of the constitution once and for all and focus on other issues,” said Cheembe.

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