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Zambia’s election: Key lessons for women and youth organising in Zimbabwe

Image credit: REUTERS/Rogan Ward

By Glanis Changachirere and Darlington Muyambwa


The outcome of the elections in Zambia, which were held on August 12, 2021, elated many pro-democracy forces, especially those struggling against despotic rulers.

Closer home, Zimbabweans have watched with admiration and motivation the possibility of a successful democratic transition.

While various opinions have come upon how the case of Zambia is not comparable to Zimbabwe, there are some issues of fundamental relevance to any democratic process that Zimbabweans can draw lessons from ahead of the upcoming elections in 2023.

Demographic shifts on voting, to more youth and women turning out to vote, present opportunities for increasing the democratic cost to incumbent authoritarians. In Zimbabwe, the 2018 election was classified as young and female by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) after 60% of the voter registrants turned out to be youths and women.
Given how Zambia’s election has followed the same trend, this paper highlights key learning points for Zimbabwe’s community based and civil society organisations. These reflections can inform Zimbabweans on strategies to navigate their own prospects of democratisation.

Background on Zambia’s electoral history and 2021 election

As early as 1991, Zambia had already modelled itself as a progressive democracy where a smooth transfer of power is possible. Zambia since then has been considered as one of the few countries that experienced a peaceful transition to multiparty democracy.

The new multiparty democracy in 1991 and economic policies of the new government made Zambia a “model for Africa ''[1] . Zambia has been deemed an “oasis of peace” in Africa since independence although the country experienced one-party rule for 27 years.

The democratization of Zambia is not complete without the mention of the 2001 tripartite elections which provided a defining moment to the country’s history. After having had two previous elections in 1991 and 1996, the 2001 elections produced a multiparty Parliament for the first time since Zambia’s independence in 1964. These elections seem to have signalled that the country had moved from a dominant one-party political system to a competitive multi-party system[2].

Zambia held its general elections on 12 August 2021 with a big voter turnout[3] at 70.9%[4] and this represented a huge leap from the 57.7% recorded in the 2016 polls. The huge turnout is attributed to the huge turnout of women and more importantly youths especially the first time voters. Young people below the age of 35 constituted over half (52,5%) of the 7,023,499 registered voters.

In this election, Mr Hakainde Hichilema who has been running in presidential elections as an opposition leader since 2006 won with a landslide after he polled 2,810,757 against incumbent President, Dr Edgar Chagwa Lungu who polled 1, 814,201[5] in 155 constituencies.

The import of Zambia’s 2018 election for women and youth mobilisation in Zimbabwe

1. Issue driven election is important

The 2021 elections in Zambia demonstrated how the context matters and how ruling governments should always thrive to deliver political goods to the electorate. On election day, youths that support UPND were seen clad in T-shirts with the message “Talk is cheap, We took it to polls” which underlines the clarity of the youth expectations from the elections.
The economic and political challenges that characterised the Zambian pre-election context included high unsustainable public debt levels estimated to be over US$ 20 billion, increased corruption levels, high unemployment levels especially among young people, climate change challenges and drastic shrinking of the civic and political space.
It’s important to demonstrate that civil and political life is very much interlinked to socio-economic life. Such linkages are also the foundation for political consciousness that helps people to resist manipulation by politicians. The education provided to the electorate reminded them that even if they were given money or goods by corrupt candidates, they should remain focused on where their vote should be.

2. Mobilise the unengaged

The electoral victory of Mr Hakainde Hichilema popularly known as HH was embroiled in his party’s ability to engage with a diverse group of women and youth who are structurally marginalised and often excluded. Organisations that work with youth and women need to be on the ground and promote them to participate in different capacities at the different stages of the election process from registering to vote, voting and defending their vote. Being in the very spaces where the youth and women are is vital in order to reach out to them through their mediums of choice. This helped Zambian civil society and the opposition to penetrate and encourage the active participation of often marginalised groups.

3. Messaging matters

Simple messages such as ‘register’, ‘show up and vote’, ‘don’t go home and defend the vote’ kept the electorate informed on their responsibilities in the 2021 elections. Observations from the polling stations indicated that it was not just election monitors that secured the vote but more importantly citizens who raised concerns and asked questions whenever they felt that there were some issues of concern. Linked to the issue of messaging, was the recognition that campaign language matters. Women and youths are diverse and follow unifying messages rather than hate speech. People respond positively to unifying messages both by organisers and candidates who are sensitive to diverse groups across class, gender, age, tribe among other differences.

4. Build bridges with different key institutions

Institutions are not monolithic.
Sometimes there are well-meaning progressive forces within state institutions such as the police, the army, the elections body and this is important for the acceptance of the vote. The 2021 election in Zambia benefited from the generally professional conduct of the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ). Community-based and civil society organisations should build relationships that may benefit the democratic cause. This is critically important in contexts like Zimbabwe where most of the people in these institutions are economically disenfranchised except for a few elites at the top. Election messages should also speak to how free and fair elections and democracy benefit them.

5. Social media is the new media

The Zambian 2021 election campaigning was done in a context that had significant restrictions due to COVID-19, shrinking political space and constrained mass media access. It, therefore, demonstrated that Social Media has become the new media and viable democratic space for effective mobilisation and consistently communicating with the electorate. Through social media, individuals have gotten a new role of not just being receivers of political messages but creators in their own right. Social media has managed to give a more equal space for political exchange between and among citizens and candidates. Candidates also effectively utilised the space to share their own ideas clearly and make the electorate understand what they stand for.

6. Democracy needs allies

Delivering a credible election that passes the democratic test requires allies who understand you, are committed to supporting your cause and speak out when electoral anomalies happen. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) was not physically present to observe the elections in Zambia. The irony is they may not have been in Zambia during the election on Covid-19 precautionary measures but interestingly they were represented physically at the presidential inauguration. However the African Union[6], Commonwealth[7] and Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA)[8] among others observed the elections on the ground. This means that had the situation gone the wrong way, SADC would not have been prepared to stand in solidarity with the aggrieved parties. Therefore local organisations working with youths and women need to forge working relationships with bodies that they know they may be able to go to and get solidarity from.

[1] Bratlon 1992, Joseph 1992 [2] National Democratic Institute for International affairs (2003) The state of political parties in Zambia [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] ENDS//


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