Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Opposition Must Change By-election Campaign Message

By Nyalubinge Ngwende
Sixteen months from September 2011 general elections, Zambia has held six by-elections induced by government, with the first vacancy coming barely days from the election after an opposition MMD MP resigned to get a job in the Foreign Service. Another shocking one was a case of an Independent MP from Msanzala constituency; the MP was already serving as deputy minister in the Patriotic Front government, but chose to resign his own parliamentary seat only to re-contest the by-election on the ruling party.

This is not good for the country, but with the results of the by-elections held so far going in favour of the PF, we are not seeing President Sata’s appetite to continue poaching opposition MPs to join PF being satiated. Two are already on cue following UPND expelling two of its MPs who accepted deputy ministerial positions in the PF against the wish of the opposition party.

The real problem is the huge cost at which the country is holding unnecessary polls at the expense of social services. This by-election run can only be stopped, as Laura Miti puts it: ‘when the voters say enough!’

Quite true, but another concern is how to make the discourse of campaigns in these by-elections make meaning for electorates to make informed choices and say enough!

The Patriotic Front has gone out to ask the electorates to vote for their candidates because it needs people who are on the same page with it to implement its development programmes. It has even gone further to threaten electorates that they risk losing out on development should they vote for the opposition member of parliament. Five years is too long a period for an area to be subjected to a development ‘blackout’ by government. The threat may be an arm-twisting gimmick, but government is having its way.

Zambian President, Sata
It is a Herculean task for the opposition to get together their campaign in a hostile environment like this, where the decision by the electorates to choose between forgoing development and voting for an opposition candidate is a foregone conclusion. The debate of discussing development in these by-elections is tilted, it is common knowledge that it is the party in power—Patriotic Front—that controls the national treasury and is responsible for delivering social services. It is waste of time for opposition parties and their candidates to start using sweet development language when the electorates have never seen opposition parties finance a new road, a public school or health facility. Government officials from the ruling party launch the road projects and commission it when completed, it also mobilises relief operations for the electorate in the face of starvation.

With this foregoing, our voters simply think they need to be nice to party in government for it to be nice and in turn give them development. Unless the opposition is fielding a very strong and popular candidate, it is hard to get the votes of old and uninformed citizens in rural areas.    

Therefore the opposition needs to muster their messages differently. In fact the ultimate goal of the opposition is to stop Sata from creating these by-elections. That they cannot do without ensuring that the electorate understands the political sphere of the country, knowing about how government works and why parliament with a strong opposition is important not only to development, but the liberties of the citizens. The electorates must be sensitized what these liberties are all about, why they are more important now than ever and how a parliament that has a weak opposition can easily arm the ruling party to destroy those liberties.

Without accusing the Patriotic Front that it is going to destroy these liberties, people need to know that politicians are unpredictable when left with absolute power and control over the institutions of governance. There are also far reaching consequences to the management of the economy when a parliament has more ruling party MPs.

UNIP ruled Zambia for 27 years. When it had opposition in parliament, it managed the economy well. But immediately it established a one party democracy in 1972, it nationalized the economy, put in place price controls and chased away the private sector through bad policies that were being passed in parliament that did not have opposition. From a strong economy in the 70s Zambia became a basket case, with GDP growing in the negative, inflation flying in triple digits while shortages of essentials, including mealie meal became common place. Citizens were taken in to be interrogated by police for being found with imported margarine. Political rights collapsed as criticizing wrong decisions by government became a crime.

The MMD also had a parliament that was dominated by its MPs when in 1996 UNIP boycotted elections. In pursuit of the free market economy that was not controlled, as there was no strong voice to advise government on what was wrong with its privatisation Act and policy, the process was done with the speed that disastrous.

The country sold its companies to foreign private companies, when the country did not even have economic structures that could support these former state owned companies to operate efficiently in private hands. In the end some new private owners just decided to strip the plant machinery of the manufacturing companies and transplanted them to neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe and elsewhere.  Zambia lost its assets of production and suffered unprecedented unemployment.

At the same time government also went ahead to remove input subsidies to farmers and also pulled out from the marketing of major crops like maize. The result was disastrous because this was done without the government serious considering the policy implications. Zambia did not have a strong financial institution and crop marketing structures to support a liberalized small scale farming sector that was not oriented to cash business. As such banks were scared to lend the farmers while the poor roads, absence of granaries to store harvests and all other marketing requirements scared any serious entrepreneur to enter the crop marketing sector. What followed was a collapse of the agriculture sector, production of maize hit the bottom low, mealie meal shortages became common place and prices of the staple food escalated.

Despite that MMD went to win every other by-election. The government at the time was popular, and electorates, who were happy to have taken down the UNIP regime in 1991, always wished the new government more time in the hope of making things right. But in waiting for things to get right, they even refused to vote for opposition MPs. Government leaders feared nothing and no one as it was business as usual in parliament since they were MPs of one family.

[It is always people who are not your family that will have the courage to tell you the truth about where you are going wrong, your own kin fear to mess up the comfort zone]

Zambians will also remember that even one of the bad constitutions with a controversial clause of parentage that declared the first republican president, Kenneth Kaunda, a foreigner was passed by an MMD dominated parliament.

In a nutshell there were many mistakes that were made by MMD that could have been avoided if Zambian voters had voted to ensure parliament had a strong opposition.

To say these things, is not accusing the PF that it will do all these wrong things. They may not take away the Farmer Input Support Programme, introduced by president Mwanawasa after 2002, and supports small scale farmers maize production. It is not even trying to smear Patriotic Front with a bad name that they will destroy the economy and manipulate the constitution. But without the safety of a strong parliament that is secured by a majority of opposition MPs, the PF may take this country in any direction they want with nothing to stop them.

Without opposition MPs with required numbers in parliament to veto certain government bills, who is going to stop Wynter Kabimba from introducing a bill in parliament to abolish English as the official language of instruction in our schools replacing it with 73 local languages instead? That could sound popular among voters, but it could spiral 73 ethnic and economic difficulties.

President Sata has shown us how he can be extreme in misusing the powers provided to him the constitution.  If he has failed to stop himself from being the most wasteful president by appointing unnecessary deputy ministers, what can stop him from more abuse?

Appointing three deputy ministers in one ministry has never happened in the history of this country. These are things that should be told to stop by voting against the PF in every other parliamentary by-election. This is because the PF is inducing these by-elections by offering positions of deputy ministers to opposition MPs that are selfish and are in politics for personal agrandisement.

This message consistently communicated, with clarity and with the benefits that may accrue to the democracy and development of the country will help the electorate change the way they vote in these by-elections,  but only for the money that PF is throwing to bribe voters to win these elections.  

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