UNDP: Deepening democracy in Zambia through citizen’s active participation

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the Resolution 62/7 declaring 15th September as International Day of Democracy.  The resolution’s preamble defines democracy as ”a universal value based on the freely-expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems, and their full participation in all aspects of life.”  The resolution further recognises that “while democracies share common features, there is no single model of democracy and that democracy does not belong to any country or region” and highlights some key actors in democracy, which are, parliaments, civil society organizations, media and the government at all levels. 

For Zambia the International Day of Democracy provides a platform for reflecting on the Country’s resolve to embrace important tenants of the International Bill of Rights and the aforementioned UN resolution.  Foremost it is important to note that the preamble of the Constitution stipulates (i) people’s right to choose the means and style of governance, recognises (ii) the equal rights of men and women in participation and pledges that (iii) people of Zambia shall ensure the accountability of the State in terms of human rights, adherence to the law and use of resources. 

As part of exercising their democratic rights, specifically the right to choose their leaders, the people of Zambia will be going to the polls to elect their president, members of parliament and local leaders on 20 September 2011. 

Zambia, since its independence in 1964, has held 14 presidential elections and 13 parliamentary and local government elections.  Historically, voter turnout on Election Day was in the around 50 percent of the eligible voters until 2006 when 70 of the eligible voters cast their votes.  For the 20 September 2011 elections the Electoral Commission of Zambia has captured on the voters register 5,167,154 voters out of an estimated 6,069,753 eligible voters (i.e. 86% of eligible voters).  This year, with the level of anti-voter apathy campaigns, it is hoped that there will be a high turnout of voters. 

National elections are but one of the important aspects of democracy.  Other aspects that go beyond elections that are important in fostering democracy and effective functioning of democratic institutions include: 

First, the engagement between members of parliament and the electorate need not only be regular but should add value to the debates in the National Assembly as well as provide evidence for parliamentary portfolio committees’ reports. For instance, parliamentary portfolio committees should hold hearing within the communities especially in rural areas rather than inviting the public for hearings in the capital or within the parliamentary buildings. 

Second, at local government level, it is equally important that the councillors be readily accessible and mechanisms should be in place to facilitate effective participation of the community in establishing development priorities and oversight service delivery. In this regard, constituency development funds should serve as a platform for community mobilisation participatory setting of development priorities at a local level. 

Third, access to information is important in deepening democracy.  To this end, the government, district councils and parliament should communicate to the public about their policies, budget and citizen’s participation mechanisms that are already in place.  Communication should be made in a language that is understandable by the general public.  For example, one of the first things that a new parliament is going to discuss is the budget for next fiscal year.  State budget – “yellow book” in Zambian terms – should be translated into a form that is easy to understand when it is communicated to the public.  Some Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have been assisting this information dissemination processes. 

Media has also an important role to play here, through a responsible and balanced reporting: Media’s responsibility is important in the post elections to track and assess the implementation of commitments made during the election campaign and to keep the electorate informed throughout, at all levels and across communities.

Fourth, each one of Zambians who cast their vote on polling day, whoever will be elected, should keep their eyes on their representatives and keep demanding, where necessary, the implementation of what they have committed during the election campaign.  The constitution of Zambia says the people of Zambia shall hold the State accountable – this requires efforts from both sides, the people of Zambia and the State.  Zambians have an opportunity to demand the delivery of promises made by their representatives. 

Zambia has a number of avenues for public discourse during the period between elections: for example, the plenary discussions at the National Assembly is open to public, various on-the-ground offices such as constituency offices, Human Rights Commission’s regional offices and district council offices are open to public for their access to information, reporting and request. 

Let’s seize these avenues and foster a culture of interaction and dialogue for better public service delivery on a regular basis, beyond polling days.

Zambia has been exceptionally peaceful ever since its independence.  This is creditable.  Now this needs a continuous nurturing to graduate to a “positive peace” where people’s concerns and basic human rights including freedom from want are addressed.  This needs all Zambians’ commitment to work together relentlessly – through their own contributions and by keeping a watchful eye on their representatives to make sure that the country is going along the path that all Zambians wish to see and to be a part of.