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Reflections on spoiled votes

IF IT was not for the petition, the 2016 general elections should have been behind us.
We are a nation that wants to move on. But the presidential petition filed by the United Party for National Development (UPND) challenging the election of President-elect Edgar Lungu has succeeded in keeping the country in a voting mode. Waiting for its outcome is as good as waiting for the Electoral Commission of Zambia to declare the winning presidential candidate.
Apart from the petition making the Constitutional Court (ConCourt) and its judges relevant, there is need to reflect on the performance of the other seven presidential candidates.
At first glance, you would wonder why the other seven participated because they should have left it to the Patriotic Front (PF) and the UPND to battle it out.
However, democracy demands that parties which genuinely think command a following in the country take a shot at the presidency.
While not much was expected of the Democratic Alliance’s Maxwell Mwamba, Peter Sinkamba (Green Party), Tilyenji Kaunda of UNIP, Saviour Chishimba of the United Progressive Party and Andyford Banda of the People’s Alliance for Change, it is the performance of the Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD) president Edith Nawakwi which shocked many.
Ms Nawakwi, the only female presidential candidate in the man’s race, could only poll a paltry 24,149 votes.
Her countrywide total tally surprisingly fell well below the whooping 85,795 total votes rejected.
What could have contributed to the high number of rejected ballots in this year’s elections?
The number of rejected votes in the 2016 elections, is perhaps the highest in Zambia’s electoral history.
Foundation for Democratic Process (FODEP) executive director Chimfwembe Mweenge says never before, even under the one-party state period, did the number of rejected votes exceed 1.5 percent of votes cast.
In the just-ended election, a total of 85,795 votes were rejected compared to 17,313 in 2015, 39,602 in 2011, 23,596 in 2008 and 48,936 in 2006.
Mr Mweenge says a percentage of votes cast in the last four elections recorded an average of 1.38 percent. The number of rejected votes in the 2016 general elections represents 2.27 percent of votes cast and is very high by any standards.
The FODEP boss cites several factors that may have led to a high number of rejected ballots in this year’s elections. These may include the following:
(a) The election appears to have been a referendum on the performance of the PF government and the contest was between only two parties, the PF and the UPND. This is borne by the fact that  there was no third-party factor (MMD having all but disappeared from the political stage due to divisions and factional fighting), as in previous general elections, where a third party received close to a 20 percent of all votes cast. In the 2016 presidential election, the third-placed candidate, Nawakwi, of the FDD, did not only receive 24,149 votes, but all the votes of the seven other candidates combined (74,486) were less than that of rejected votes.
(b) It can also be argued that a large number of rejected votes may be due to the fact that voters deliberately spoilt the ballots, because there may have been a feeling that the competition was between the PF and UPND and those who did not support either party and did not think the other candidates had any chance of election, may have simply spoilt their votes.
(c) The number of spoilt votes seems to have been larger in urban constituencies than in rural ones. However, on average, there were more rejected votes in PF strongholds (54,272) than in UPND strongholds (31,573). The curious irony of the rejected votes phenomenon is the fact that the urban areas that are supposed to have a higher number of literate people had high numbers of rejected votes than the rural constituencies that are expected to have more illiterate people. Our conclusion is that disinterest in candidates on offer, ineffective voter education by the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ), political parties, candidates and civil society organisations, negative campaigning by some political parties that urged voters to spoil their ballots (especially in the referendum) in some areas contributed to a high number of rejected votes. As for urban areas, confusion created by voting in five elections, and inefficiencies by polling staff may have led to the high number of spoilt ballots.
Given the insignificant results received by other opposition parties, is there justification to have a high number of presidential candidates?
FODEP upholds the constitutional right of citizens to participate in the democratic process, including the right to form and belong to political parties of their choice. Going by what the results of the last two elections (2015 and 2016) suggest, Zambia may be going towards a two-party system, as two parties are now becoming a dominant feature of the electoral landscape.
This suggests that seemingly smaller parties, such as FDD, MMD, UNIP and others would eventually fade away. In this last election, only four parties won seats in the National Assembly, PF (81), UPND (59), MMD (3) and FDD (1). Twelve seats were won by independents. The ECZ is yet to release the official version of successful parliamentary results, including the independents.
FODEP notes that the introduction of high nomination fees for the presidential and parliamentary candidates may have been designed to reduce the number of candidates. While we are opposed to the decision of hiking nomination fees as discouraging people to contest election, we feel there are other ways of ensuring that political parties are subject to stringent rules to select their candidates and the parties go through thorough scrutiny.
Article 60 of the Constitution of the Zambia Amendment Act number two of 2016 provides that political parties are inclusive and national in character, hold primary elections in the selection of candidates before elections and are internally democratic.
“It is our view that enforcement of this article through the operationalisation of the Political Parties Act, will result in more serious political parties that will be able to effectively contest elections. A two-party system may be dangerous for democracy, in an African setting, as it has the potential to polarise and divide the country. As it is right now, the results of the just-ended election have confirmed a serious political divide that others have interpreted as a polarised regional block voting,” Mr Mweenge says.
How may the number of rejected votes be reduced?
FODEP says it is too early to give a definitive statement on how the high number of rejected votes can be reduced, as they are still going through the results of all the elections; presidential, parliamentary, mayoral/council chairperson and local government, including reports from their monitors and partners to determine what really could have caused the high number of rejected ballots.
“On our part, planning ahead, FODEP will devise and intensify voter education, in areas where there was a high number of rejected votes,” Mr Mweenge says.
In future, in order to avert the challenge of high numbers of rejected ballots, FODEP recommends that we introduce:
• Electoral systems that are open to minorities such as women, youth and persons with disabilities;
• A nationwide stakeholder civic and voter education strategy way before elections; and
• Enhance sensitisation on the newly-introduced electoral regime, i.e four ballots.

The author is Zambia Daily Mail editorials editor.