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THE PARALLEL UNIVERSE SERIES ISSUE NUMBER 5: UNNECESSARY BY-ELECTIONS

Posted Feb 18, 2013

THE PARALLEL UNIVERSE SERIES

ISSUE NUMBER 5: UNNECESSARY BY-ELECTIONS

Introduction

Last week, yet another opposition member of parliament, Mr. Greyford Monde, was sworn in as deputy minister in the PF administration. As UPND MP for Itezhi-Tezhi, Mr. Monde’s acceptance of his appointment could trigger another by-election at great cost to our development and at the expense of human life. Money that is not spent in a rural community on constructing a simple bridge over a fast-moving stream brought on by the rains could mean another innocent child being swept away to his or her death. Just this week, an Evelyn Hone college student is reported to have died from dysentery as a result of the poor sewerage system at the institution. Every kwacha spent on unnecessary by-elections takes money away from planned investment in infrastructure, from our health and education sectors and from addressing the persistent load-shedding and the lack of access to safe, clean energy. It affects the timely delivery of inputs to rural farmers and diverts money meant for improving access to safe water and decent sanitation. In short, it retards our national development.

In this fifth instalment of our Parallel Universe Series, I want to take you through the sheer and utter waste and excess that is being promoted by the PF administration in its seemingly tireless crusade to ensure dominance in Parliament. I want to make it clear that not only have the PF been breaking their promises, but that continuing to allow them to manipulate the constitutional rules on by-elections for partisan rather than national interest must be brought to an immediate end. I also want to suggest a practical way in which this can be done.

Why have by-elections when MP’s change camp?

Let me first of all explain the background to the provision in our constitution that triggers a by-election whenever a member of parliament resigns from or ceases to be a member of his or her political party (or when an independent member of parliament joins a political party and vice-versa). The tradition of parliamentary democracies upholds the principle that a member of parliament is elected by voters in a constituency because he or she is either politically independent or belongs to a particular political party. In theory, therefore, when people turn out to vote, they are electing individuals on the basis of their stated political party loyalties or their independence. In practice, of course, there are many different motivations for electing candidates. This is  especially true in Africa where poverty and isolation from quality education have allowed politicians to exploit vulnerable groups or bulldoze the result they want to see through the illegal deployment of state operatives. In many elections in Zambia, the political party on which a person stands has sometimes been more important than who they are as individuals but this is not always the case.

The official explanation offered by the PF for co-opting opposition MP’s without consulting their party leaderships is that they want to work with everyone to promote national development. Such an explanation is clearly intended to hoodwink the masses. Is the PF really telling us that they have no faith in their own elected members of Parliament? Are they telling us that only opposition members of Parliament have the brains to assist in national development? Really? If I were a PF MP, I would be questioning my own worth being in such a Party.

Here’s the reality. The PF does not have enough MP’s to ensure that it can pass laws and make certain appointments without support from opposition parliamentarians. When the 2011 elections were over, PF had won 60 seats, while the MMD managed to obtain 55. The rest were made up of UPND, FDD, ADD and 3 independents. Two seats were not contested because of the death of two parliamentary candidates just before the election. The 60 seats held by the PF were not enough to form a working majority in the legislature. To achieve that, they needed to win 80 seats (basically half of 158 MP’s – 150 being elected and 8 being nominated). Subsequent by-elections have seen an  increase in the number of PF MP’s to 71 (63 elected and 8 nominated). This has left the PF short by at least 9 MP’s for an overall majority, hence the mad rush to create unnecessary by-elections and to co-opt opposition MP’s into government ranks.

The PF has so far appointed at least 6 non-PF members of parliament as deputy ministers. Once appointed, the will always vote with the ruling party or risk being fired and losing their new-found benefits. As Mr. Sata himself put it when he swore in Mr. Greyford Monde last week: “…. if you think someone says don’t join the government at least me I will provide you with an office, vehicle, driver, fuel which the party you were belonging to didn’t give you”. These words are very telling indeed. Not only are they a confirmation that it really is all about self and not nation, but they betray the desire for outright parliamentary control. In saying “the party you were belonging to”, President Sata is confirming his desire to poach support from the opposition regardless of any objection from the opposition. This is not about lofty ideals tied to nation-building. Nor is it about securing development for areas that are not controlled by the PF. This is pure politics, nothing more, nothing less. And the more the politics, the less the development.

Ministerial musical-chairs

It is very telling that no member of the opposition appointed by the PF has been considered high-calibre enough to sit in Cabinet. Deputy ministers play a very limited role in governance and their function has become mainly political rather than developmental. At least when the late former President Levy Mwanawasa poached Dipak Patel from FDD he put him in Cabinet. Further, we should each ask ourselves what exactly a deputy minister does other than earn a salary, travel, draw allowances, chair internal meetings and deliver speeches for his or her minister. A deputy minister under our constitution and laws is not a true deputy to the minister. He or she does not sit in Cabinet and performs the type of administrative duties that can be undertaken by a permanent secretary or departmental director. This is not to say that better use cannot be made of deputy ministers but their number need not be so high.

The PF had campaigned against the excessive expenditure of the MMD and promised to trim the size of Cabinet. Having started on a positive note, we soon saw a familiar pattern emerge: new ministries were created, old ministries were jumbled up and departments relating to the same sector ended up being divided between two different ministries. For example, child and maternal health are now part of the ministry of Community Development, duplicating some of the functions of the ministry of Health! What I am about to explain may seem like it is made up but it is not. Before Given Lubinda became an endangered species, he was appointed as the PF’s first minister of Tourism, Information and Broadcasting Services. The Tourism ministry was for the first time combined with Information ministry because in the words of Michael Sata as he made the announcement, Given was himself a “tourist attraction”. Then lo and behold, within short order, Mr. Lubinda was re-assigned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He did not go alone – the Tourism portfolio was transferred along with him, no doubt in keeping with the idea that he was a tourist attraction. After another short spell, the Tourism ministry was finally released from being personal-to-holder and now stands alone as the ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture. But the ministerial experimentation did not end there. It included combining the ministry of Labour with the ministry of Youth Sport and Child Development – the same ministry of Labour that had been part of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting after Given had been transferred from there.

This was all very confusing for the casual observer and you can imagine how much time, money and effort was wasted just dealing with the administrative arrangements of putting all these arrangements together and then taking them apart before putting them back together again. We were indeed heading towards a masterpiece of confusion!

The harmful distraction of by-elections

The triggering of by-elections by the PF is really a hard slap in the face of the electorate. The incumbent administration is, in effect, telling the people that voted in the last election: we don’t care who you voted for, we have control over the nation’s resources so we will entice whoever we like to join us. The PF knows that by-election turnouts are always low. They know that if they are only competing in one or two constituencies, they can bring to bear the full effect of the powers they wield as an incumbent administration, and make a go at manipulating the outcome. They know that their agents can break electoral rules with impunity. This is not something new, it has been part of the election rule-book of the political elite in this country since the second term of the MMD.

But what do these engineered by-elections achieve other than the diversion of development resources? They slow down the response time of government to pressing social and economic challenges (because attention is focussed on elections). They also create unnecessary tension and divisions denying the nation a chance to unify around common concerns. And this is why the comments of some commentators arguing that all is not lost in terms of national resources when a by-election takes place are somewhat misguided. They point out that the constituency undergoing a by-election will receive a short-term boost in economic activity: lodges will be full, fuel suppliers will sell more fuel, shops will sell more merchandise and car hire companies as well as producers of chitenges and tee shirts in the major cities will have more business. The problem of course is that few will benefit from short-term election-driven expenditure, whereas many sustainable livelihoods can be created from the construction of all-weather rural roads and many lives could be saved from investment in decent peri-urban and rural healthcare.

The PF administration hardly needs another distraction from performing their governance responsibilities as leaders. Yet they seem to relish these by-election battles. Having spent 10 years trying to wrestle power from a tricky, stubborn and determined MMD, they can’t seem to shake off that “opposition feeling”. One of their first tasks, even after having assumed power, was to petition over one third of the parliamentary seats that had been contested in 2011 and won by other parties, mainly the MMD. They also seemed to be in full support of the rather short-sighted decision to de-register the MMD, an action that would have instantly rendered well over a third of all parliamentary seats vacant. How any right thinking politician who loves his country would support something like this is hard to understand. If, however, any of you are wondering why after nearly 50 years since Independence, over 60 per cent of our people live in abject poverty at a time when we have one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, why we have no clear policy direction and why our nation is generally characterised by mediocrity, corruption, greed and neglect, look no further than the political leadership which over the years, we have allowed to manipulate  power and promote politics at the expense of development.

When will our political leaders understand that triggering unnecessary by-elections is not development? When will they open their eyes and see how much death and deterioration is affecting the lives of ordinary people daily? When will they understand that they were elected to serve people and not themselves? The sad reality is that they may never know unless and until the people make it clear to them that they have had enough. Let all of civil society, all our politicians, all our men, women and children rise up to this challenge. Let us campaign to support an amendment to Article 71(2)(c) of the constitution which triggers a by election whenever a person leaves or is expelled from a political party or when an independent MP decides to no longer be independent (and vice versa) so that we end the heartless manipulation of our constitution now.

The argument that amending the clause on crossing the floor will bring about confusion is not one that is supported by our parliamentary history. The first five years of MMD rule managed quite well on a constitution that allowed an MP to join another political party or become an independent without triggering a by-election. But that all changed when the Chiluba administration realised they would have an upper hand against any reactionary or independent-minded MP if they introduced such a provision. And indeed, it worked like a charm: few MP’s were prepared to risk a by-election in which they would be mercilessly out-gunned in terms of financial resources. This is obviously not a permanent solution but would at least enable us to stem the trend of unnecessary electoral expenditure until the rules under the new constitution come into effect. The draft constitution, if implemented, would also put an end to unnecessary by-elections through a mechanism of adopting the runner up in parliamentary elections if there is a sudden vacancy.

Way forward

So what is the way forward? We call upon everyone who wants to fight this abuse of our resources to rise up and support our call for an immediate abolition of the clause in our constitution that requires a by-election when an MP changes political parties. A backbencher in parliament can present a private member’s bill seeking an amendment of Article 71(2)(9). NAREP will play its role in soliciting skills to draft the amendment bill. Civil society can help in sensitizing communities about the cost of inaction. Ordinary Zambians can make sure this remains a topic of discussion whenever they experience load-shedding, whenever they visit a public health institution or travel on a bad road or whenever a Zambian dies from the consequences of political greed and neglect. The Church can and must speak more loudly about the injustice of placing priority on politics at the expense of development. If everyone plays their part, we can put an end to unnecessary and costly by-elections once and for all.

 

Elias Chipimo

NAREP President

18 February 2013