DEBASING POLITICAL DEBATE IN ZAMBIA

By Facksom Banda

I am increasingly becoming concerned about how political debate in Zambia has become polarized between the so-called 2.8 and 1.8 million – referring to those who voted for UPND and PF respectively in the 12 August 2021 presidential elections. This is a false binary that is stifling open, intelligent, and coherent political debate on national issues.

This situation is particularly dangerous for the segment of Zambian citizens who are generally ideologically non-aligned with any political party but exercise their right to vote for a party that they believe may better serve their interests at any point in time. Such citizens, as an integral part of the over 18.4 million population of Zambia, can fluidly vacillate between the 2.8 and the 1.8.

Social media, with its hitherto unknown political punditry, has only served to heighten such divisiveness, helping to perpetuate the impression of a real dichotomy. In part, this is a quintessential character of Zambian politics, seen at various snapshots in key historical moments.

Ingrained ‘winner takes all’ attitude

Take, for example, UNIP’s mobilization of Zambians into a One-Party State in 1973, effectively banning political dissent in favour of a form of intra-UNIP democracy. While the reasons for this may have been to promote national unity and development, they disregarded the discursive or contentious character of politics, whether pre- or post-independence.

Fast forward to 1991 in which largely former UNIP members, aided by the significantly changed global geopolitics, morphed into the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), with its mantra of economic liberalization, and nothing else in between. This – again – was a false binary, pitting the MMD against anybody else who harboured differences inherited, in some cases, from the good parts of UNIP.

Not everything was bad about UNIP, but the totalizing narrative of liberalization, privatization and commercialization pushed out alternative voices, and a significant segment of society moved along with that metanarrative. The consequences of that political singularity were to manifest themselves subsequently, despite the different intra-party ideological complexions that the MMD took on.

The end of the honeymoon with the MMD in 2011 ushered in the Patriotic Front (PF), whose hegemonic agenda became one of empowering citizens at the expense of everything else, including economic prudence. It was thus not surprising that the ideology of ‘more money into your pockets’ was taken literally to mean dishing out hard cash to party cadres to reward their ‘patriotism’, not to the nation, but to the party.

The PF forgot all those Zambians ‘in-between’ who belonged to different social and political formations – anguished families, beleaguered youths, ill-treated civil servants, stifled NGOs, persecuted political parties, the disrespected intelligentsia, the scorned diasporas, etc.

And then UPND happened in 2021, and here we are, reducing the complexity of the Zambian experience of over 18.4 million people to the simplicity of a numerical difference between 2.8 and 1.8 million voters.

Why we must be concerned

Aside from what I have noted above, here is why this is a problem.

• It oversimplifies political debate: In general, the 2.8 and 1.8 may represent opposites, but the truth lies somewhere in between them. Politicians on both sides would do well to seek out this middle ground and leverage it for the benefit of their side. Indeed, an alternative political movement could emerge to capitalize on the weaknesses of both the 2.8 and 1.8. It would not be an easy task, but it represents an opportunity for uniting the country.

• It stifles dissent: Democratic politics thrive in an environment that promotes dissent within the boundaries of the civic virtues of respect for the worth and dignity of each person, civility, integrity, self-discipline, tolerance, and compassion as well as civic commitments to human rights, the common good, equality and the rule of law, among others.

For this reason, any ruling party would do well to promote the repeal of laws which stifle such dissent, and Zambia is awash in such laws. Here, the point might be made, in relation to Chilufya Tayali’s incarceration, that the report of the ZLDC (Zambia Law Development Commission) review of the Penal Code and of the Criminal Procedure Code makes an illuminating observation: “The African Commission has said that any restrictions to freedom of expression should be the exception and are only allowed if a clear causal link can be demonstrated between the expression and the risk of harm to a legitimate interest.

The authorities should not use laws, such as those concerning sedition (inciting others to rebel), against journalists or others who simply criticize government policies or publish well-documented accounts of corruption in government circles…” Of course, I am not privy to any other such details as surround Tayali’s imprisonment, but I’m making a general comment on freedom of expression and the need to repeal laws that hinder it.

Not to do so is to reject what Chantal Mouffe refers to as ‘agonistic pluralism’ to indicate that ‘a well-functioning democracy calls for a vibrant clash of democratic political positions.’ In other words, Zambia, as a democracy, must be treated as a more pluralistic space which does not place ‘too much emphasis on consensus’ but allows for ‘democratic contestation.’

• It reduces political discourse to a zero-sum game: Nurturing democracy means much more than winning or losing an election. That is just its simplistic numerical representation. On the contrary, democracy is about promoting deliberative, and not vindictive, politics. Society must win – at all costs. While on this point, it might be recalled that President Hakainde Hichilema has encouraged an all-society vision of democracy, rather than that of a single party.

This is not to say that party ideologies or manifestos do not matter; they do, to the extent that they advance the aim of our multiparty democracy. This ‘zero-sum game’ political reductionism can be seen in the United States of America, for example, where reality becomes sandwiched between two opposites: the Republican Party brand of conservativism and the Democratic Party brand of liberalism. The truth lies somewhere in between, but giving vent to such a zero-sum game means that the rest of the world has lost out an what used to be a shining model of democracy.

• It stupefies otherwise intelligent people: The desire – sometimes for reasons of economic self-preservation – to speak over and above everybody else makes us come across as insincere and unprincipled. Indeed, it is this quality that, often, results in the near worship of our political leaders and our own ways of reasoning as infallible. In the long run, this is an untenable position and certainly one that is out of sync with democratic politics, and even peaceful co-existence.

• It obscures facts. Misinformation and disinformation thrive in an environment where political debate is feared, and political compliance elevated. Establishing facts is more likely to happen in contestation than in conformity. Good political leaders learn more from contests than from concords.

To conclude: it seems to me that the country will be better served if we suspend our loyalty to either the 2.8 or 1.8, and instead transfer it to the 18.4. Therein lies the long-term survival of the 2.8 and 1.8 ensemble!

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