Early in the morning on August 16, the Electoral Commission of Zambia announced that long-time opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND) had won the 2021 presidential elections with 59.4 percent of the vote. Zambians went to the polls on August 12 in the midst of a tense pre-election environment marked by incidents of violence between supporters of opposing political parties, increasing disinformation and hate speech online and in the media, unequal application of laws that limited opposition groups’ ability to campaign equally and restrictions on campaigning due to COVID-19. Despite these concerns, however, Zambians turned out to vote in large numbers on election day, with many waiting in line for hours to cast their vote and make their voices heard. The announcement of Hichilema's win and the subsequent concession by incumbent President Edgar Lungu marks the third transition of power between opposition and ruling parties in Zambian history, and has been celebrated throughout the region as an inspiration for peaceful political change coming from the ballot box.
Given the tense pre-election environment, observation by non-partisan citizen groups played a critical role in boosting public confidence in the credibility of the electoral process and the election outcome. NDI’s partners began advocating for improved election policies, as well as observing key pre-election processes, more than a year ahead of election day. As a result, citizen observers were able to provide oversight of many of the most controversial elements of the election, all of which took place prior to election day itself. NDI partners observed voter registration, documented restrictions on opposition campaigns, and advocated for greater inclusion of marginalized groups.
NDI worked with the Christian Churches Monitoring Group (CCMG), a coalition of four church bodies, to provide systematic reporting on the pre-election period and, on election day, to conduct a parallel vote tabulation (PVT) with 1500 PVT observers and 181 supervisors deployed to a nationally representative random sample of polling stations. PVT is a proven methodology used by non-partisan citizen observers around the world to independently verify official election results through the systematic collection of data at polling stations on voting and counting processes. Throughout election day CCMG’s PVT observers submitted reports to the CCMG data center, providing more than 136,000 unique data points on the setup of polling stations, adherence to COVID-19 protocols, and the integrity of the voting and counting processes, among other things. Ultimately CCMG’s PVT was able to verify that the official results announced by the electoral commission accurately reflected the ballots cast at polling stations. The PVT also provided critical data to confirm that an average of 98 percent of polling agents from the ruling party and 99 percent of polling agents from the leading opposition party agreed with the presidential results posted at polling stations, countering claims that ruling party polling agents were absent from polling stations in three provinces.
Citizen observer groups also provided important information on the inclusivity of the 2021 elections for persons with disabilities. Prior to election day, NDI’s partner the Zambia Federation of Disability Organisations (ZAFOD) engaged with the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) and successfully advocated for an accessibility audit of polling stations and for greater inclusion of persons with disabilities in voter registration processes. This includes ideas like capturing disability information during registration in order to inform planning for elections and by hiring persons with disabilities as voter registration officers and voter education facilitators. With technical assistance from NDI, the Zambia Federation of Disability Organisations (ZAFOD) conducted a thematic observation of election day, highlighting the continued barriers to voting for persons with disabilities and setting the foundation for future advocacy and efforts at inclusion. ZAFOD deployed 74 election day observers, as well as 20 supervisors who served as mobile observers, at polling stations across the country to report on the accessibility of polling stations and participation of persons with disabilities, as well as the conduct of voting and counting processes. As detailed in the group’s preliminary statement, ZAFOD’s observation found that many polling stations remain inaccessible due to physical barriers such as stairs or lack of accessible voting materials such as Braille ballot jackets, effectively limiting the right to equal political participation for persons with disabilities.
As the Zambian people celebrate the latest peaceful transfer of power in their country and the new Hichilema administration takes shape, Zambia has a window of opportunity to consolidate democratic gains and institute reforms to further enhance the transparency and inclusion of future electoral cycles. For citizen observer groups, improving on the key challenges identified in the handling of pre-election activities, in addition to building on a transparent voting and counting process, will be key next steps during the new administration. In Zambia and beyond, citizen observer groups can - and will - continue to play a critical role beyond election day by providing stakeholder recommendations, observing by-elections and other electoral processes and advocating for and providing oversight to reforms.
These program activities were implemented with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).
Authors: Christina Murphy is a Program Manager on the Southern and East Africa team. Brian Ernst is a Senior Program Manager on the Southern and East Africa team.
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.