To the surprise of many commentators, including this one, the Zambian President, Edgar Lungu, ushered in a new constitutional dispensation on 6 January 2016, agreeing to a number of far-reaching reforms that have the potential to transform the Zambian political landscape. Having initially pledged to promote constitutional reform, Lungu subsequently argued that there was insufficient time to introduce a new constitution before the next general elections, scheduled for 11 August, and so advocated for selectively certain clauses by introducing the Constitution of Zambia (Amendment) Bill to the National Assembly. Coming in the wake of a series of presidents who either subverted or postponed constitutional reform, this was widely interpreted as an effort to empower the executive to pick and choose which changes to introduce, and thus to stymie genuine reform.
However, the Bill that passed parliament with 111 votes in favour and 37 against has introduced a number of clauses with far-reaching consequences, including some that civil society actors have been demanding for many years – although by no means all of them:
• A 50%+1 clause that requires successful presidential candidates to win an absolute majority of the vote. Had this been in place in past multiparty elections, the majority of contests would have required a second round run-off. Opposition parties have called for this clause for many years to prevent incumbents winning with a small proportion of the vote.
• All presidential candidates must now declare an official “running mate” when they submit their nomination papers, who then becomes the vice president when they are sworn in.
• To contest for the presidency, parties must be able to demonstrate that they have 100 supporters – who must be registered voters – in every province. This is said to be a progressive clause as it forces parties to appeal to all parts of the country.
• Dual citizenship, something that the Zambian diaspora has desired for many years, will be permitted under the new rules.
President Lungu’s willingness to enact these changes has been an important shot in the arm for Zambian democracy, but stands at odds with the president’s growing reputation for authoritarian excesses. At the time of writing, Geoffrey Mwamba (popularly known as GBM), the vice president of the main opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), is under arrest on trumped up charges of “drilling” 250 young men, who it is alleged were being trained to form an opposition militia. At the same time, the University of Zambia (UNZA) remains closed after the president used the Public Order Act to shut it down. On 6 February, Lungu stated that he will not re-open the country’s most prominent educational establishment “until students demonstrate maturity”.
The inconsistency in the president’s approach has led some commentators to look for reasons that Lungu may have agreed to the Constitutional Amendment Bill not because he believes in democracy but because it will help him to win the next elections. The conspiracy theory runs something like this: the president’s main motivation for introducing these changes stems not from a commitment to plural politics but a desire to turn on the taps of international financial assistance in a period of prolonged economic decline, and to relegitimate his struggling government in the eyes of an increasingly critical electorate. Clauses such as the requirement for presidential candidates to stipulate a running mate are not intended to clarify the political system, but rather to force the main opposition leader, Hakainde Hichilema into a difficult position because his party, the UPND, features two vice presidents. The new rules will therefore force Hichilema to disappoint one of his key allies.
On this logic, the requirement for parties to have 100 supporters in each province is not designed to deter ethnic politics, but to disadvantage smaller parties, and hence to dissuade disgruntled members of the Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF) from defecting. Similarly, the requirement for winning presidential candidates to secure 50%+1 of the vote is not intended to ensure that the government has a broader base of support and legitimacy, but has been allowed through because Lungu believes that as the sitting president he will be better able to form a broad coalition than his rivals.
If this is the president’s thinking, then he may have miscalculated. Although his alliance with former president Rupiah Banda has given him greater access to campaign finance, it is Hichilema that appears to be putting together the more effective alliance. One of the reasons that Geoffrey Mwamba seems to have been targeted by the government is that the UPND vice president was previously a core member of the PF during Michael Sata’s leadership, and has considerable capacity to mobilize voters. Other former PF allies have also joined the UPND, giving the party a far stronger allure outside of its Southern Province heartlands. Indeed, if President Lungu – who hails from the minority Nsenga community – fails to appoint someone from the much larger Bemba speaking community as his running mate, he may lose one of the largest voting blocs that propelled his predecessor to the presidency in 2011. In this way, the running mate clause may prove to be a greater challenge for the PF than for the UPND. Moreover, if the election does go to a run-off this may generate the perception that the government is vulnerable, and encourage more defections to the opposition. The outcome of the next elections therefore remains too close to call.