By Stephen T. Maimbodei
“AN election in Africa has once again ended with the opposition rejecting the final results and claiming that the election was rigged”.
When the headline was read out on Sunday evening, I heaved a sigh, and exclaimed: “Boy oh boy, not again!”
I have always wondered whether the cry about election fraud, which almost always comes soon after election results are announced, is an indictment on our young and fledgling democracies and their ability to successfully administer elections
I have also wondered if this actually is a plus sign in nation state building. And I also question, administer them for whom, and in whose interests? Are the people ever a factor in all these? Are the underlying issues as simplistic as I am making them to be?
There seems to be an unwritten African code, which says that a strong opposition party pitting itself against the ruling party should win any election, whether parliamentary or presidential. If they fail to win, then the election and the electoral system are condemned, and the denunciation carries more weight if the Western media champions it.
For years now, we have witnessed that any opposition defeat automatically becomes electoral fraud, accompanied by the usual jibe that the election has been stolen, and claims that the poll was not free and fair and that these are a potent enough mix to produce a rigged poll.
This is a script whose template has been replicated all over Africa when opposition parties lose to ruling parties. It is tired copy, but one which is happily accepted in the West, and one which reinforces the stereotypical images of undemocratic election processes in Africa, and the inability to govern.
The next step is for the opposition to reject the results, take the matter to the courts, and demand a recount. Zimbabwe is currently in a political malaise because of this phenomenon.
On October 30, Zambians went to the polls to elect a president to replace the late Levy Mwanawasa who passed on last August. Four contestants vied for the post although at the end only two remained major contenders, then acting President Rupiah Banda of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy and Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front.
Out of a population of 11 477 447, more than 3 million are, according to the Electoral Commission of Zambia, registered voters, and 1 768 210 people cast valid votes, which is less than 50 percent of the total number of registered voters. It is quite clear then that voter turnout was low. However, when all was said and done, Sata rejected the result, alleging malpractices, demanded a recount and announced his intention to challenge the results in court.
As if to give credence to Sata’s claims, the Western media made an issue of the fact that President Banda won the election by a narrow margin, and went on to be sworn in barely two hours after the announcement of the final result.
President Banda beat his rival by 35 209 votes. One wonders why winning an election with a narrow margin, where the difference between the two is greater than the number of votes grossed by the fourth contestant who polled 13 683 votes, would be an issue. According to election observers — local, regional and international – the elections were conducted in a free and fair manner in accordance with the Sadc guidelines on the conduct of elections.
Sata had initially asked the Electoral Commission of Zambia to delay announcing the full result since he believed that his initial lead was going to be maintained. However, his request was denied and he claimed in an interview that “a bunch of thieves have stolen (his) votes”.
This was the second time Sata claimed electoral fraud. In the previous poll that pitted him against late Mwanawasa, he did the same and took the case up to the Zambian courts. What is disturbing in this trend, which seems to be quite unique to African politics, is the number of times election fraud cases arise in most elections. And it is almost like a given that the opposition has to win an election in order for the election to be accepted as free and fair. Why?
Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria, Malawi, Uganda, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and many others have had these problems, whether genuine or not genuine. These are problems that stall national development and make it difficult for incoming governments to implement developmental projects as time and scarce resources are wasted in what President Banda has described as “petty squabbles”.
Who also says that if a candidate is initially leading, then it is a given that they should emerge the ultimate winner? Who also says that if one wins by a small margin, then the results are questionable?
A Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation reporter interviewed an official from one of the opposition political parties (not PF) who expressed satisfaction with the electoral process. Then, they were waiting for the last batch of results from 20 constituencies in outlying areas and all believed to be MMD strongholds just like urban centres were Sata’s strongholds.
An MMD official who was also interviewed on ZNBC expressed satisfaction with the voting process, and said that despite the razor-thin difference between the two leading contenders, MMD was confident of victory since they already had the results which had been posted outside polling stations in the various constituencies.
Why, therefore, did the opposition claim electoral fraud if the process was transparent and was endorsed by various observers? Is electoral fraud being institutionalised even in cases where it is unwarranted in order to diminish Africa’s electoral systems? Who stands to benefit each time people refuse to accept the results of a process they would have participated in? Not the people obviously!
Depending on what the Zambian constitution says, Sata should accept the results. Doing so is a sign of respect to the Zambian people – his supporters and others who did not vote for him.
Development programmes in Africa cannot be sacrificed on the altar of expediency and personal egos should rise above the people’s interests.
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