By BRIAN SIWISHA in Dubai-
SINCE Zambia got independence from Britain in 1964, the country has followed a western-style of parliamentary democracy.
Zambia holds presidential and parliamentary elections every five years where the president can only run for two consecutive five-year terms.
This includes the election of national assembly parliamentary candidates, mayoral and council chairperson and Local Government councillors.
Since independence, Zambia has held 10 elections with the last six having been the most contentious and competitive from 1996 to 2015.
At the helm of this process is the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) through which the Government has managed to successfully implement this democratic requisite.
The ECZ is an independent and autonomous body responsible for managing Zambia’s electoral processes.
Established under Article 76 of the Constitution, its mandate is to conduct and supervise presidential and parliamentary elections, the registration of voters, and review electoral boundaries.
The ECZ is also guided by the Electoral Commission Act No. 24 of 1996, which provides for its composition, the appointment and tenure of its commissioners, financial regulation, and matters connected to its administration.
Additionally, the Local Government Elections Act of 1997, authorises the ECZ to conduct Local Government elections.
Besides its constitutional functions, the commission has several statutory tasks to perform, which are voter education; conducting referenda; formulating and reviewing electoral regulations; resolving election disputes; and, performing other statutory functions that may be required by Parliament.
The Constitution sets the principle and foundation basis for the electoral process and provides for the electoral system, and enactment of acts of parliament to give meaning and force to its provisions.
One of the major activities the commission is responsible for is the procuring of all election-related materials and services.
The procurement of services such as printing of ballot papers is done with other stakeholders like political parties, who are extensively consulted on procurement and given an opportunity to observe the printing procedure.
It is the concern around the procurement of election materials which the country has had to deal with to ensure that elections are credible and satisfactory to all stakeholders.
Myths, mistrust and suspicions continue to bombard the commission, a situation that always arises in whenever elections are about to take place.
At the centre of these controversies has been the printing of ballot papers, documents on which the citizens give direction of the country by way of casting votes so that a choice of representatives is elected to run the affairs of the country.
Political parties, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and other stakeholders, including the citizens, have never spared the ECZ when it comes to preparation of election materials.
According to the ECZ, the printing of the ballot papers has been a task which initially started from being done in Zambia, to moving to the sub region on the African continent to Europe in the United Kingdom (UK) and finally now the Middle East.
With the 11th presidential and general elections slated for next Thursday on August 12, the ECZ assembled a team of selected stakeholders from various sectors in the electoral process to undertake the national task of monitoring of printing of ballot papers in the United Arab Emirate of Dubai.
Amongst stakeholders’ representatives that participated were the Patriotic Front (PF), opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) and the Non-Governmental Gender Organisations Coordinating Council (NGOCC).
The group was later joined by the Christian Churches Monitoring (CCMG).
The other organisations that had representatives were the Zambia Police Service, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), Drug Enforcement Commission (DEC) and the media.
According to ECZ Commissioner Ali Simwinga, the commission has in the past printed ballot papers from South Africa, UK and now the Middle East.
“We printed from South Africa, UK and now Dubai in 2016 and this year. The process of bidding is open and only those who meet the commission’s requirements are awarded the contract,” the commissioner said.
The ECZ is alive to the views and concerns raised in ensuring that there are zero errors in the printing of the ballot papers for the country’s 12,152 polling stations.
Mr Simwinga said the presence of stakeholders adds value to the whole printing process and legitimizes the electoral process.
“The support from the PF, UPND, police, ACC, DEC and NGOCC in our view as a commission, adds value to the integrity, credibility and legitimacy, and of course transparency of our electoral process,” Mr Simwinga said.
He said there is need to ensure that Zambians are accorded a process in which they can vote for candidates and leaders of their choice.
Mr Simwinga said dialogue and stakeholder support to the ECZ underscores their patriotism and commitment to the entire governance system in the country.
“The commission believes that open dialogue is important and this is why we inform stakeholders so that they own the process. We have not hidden anything here in Dubai and are happy with the presence of the stakeholders here,” he said.
To further reinforce quality control and enhance the process, ECZ on its part, came up with four groups which monitored and evaluated the process at the printing plant so that the process meets the ECZ’s standards.
Commissioning the printing of the four election types, ECZ Vice Chairperson Emily Sikazwe, who led the first group, said the electoral body was up to the task to deliver credible elections.
Dr Sikazwe said the presence of the delegation in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was to ensure that it witnesses the process from start to finish in readiness for this year’s general elections.
Dr Sikazwe who was accompanied by ECZ Commissioner Major General Vincent Mukanda, said she was optimistic that the commission would not fail as it has the duty of ensuring that expectations of Zambians back home are met.
Another group of 16 political parties was stationed in Lusaka where it was verifying the ballot papers before they were sent to Dubai for production.
Political parties, which are key players in an election, were also challenged to have trust and confidence in the ECZ as it is mandated by law to handle and manage elections.
The militant behaviour sometimes exhibited by some political cadres who wanted to engage in physical confrontation, is an approach that Dr Sikazwe described as being responsible for raising unwarranted suspicion and makes the work difficult for the commission.
Dr Sikazwe warned that the for next week’s general elections, the ECZ will not take kindly to political parties that photocopy the General Regulation form 20 (GEN 20) and write fake results which they later use to confront the commission staff with claims that the results the results of the commission were different from what they had.
ECZ Chief Electoral Officer Patrick Nshindano reassured the political parties that the commission had enhanced security measures which will protect all votes to be cast in this year’s polls.
The famous GEN 20, the form used to declare winners and record results, has been upgraded to make it difficult to reproduce or even photocopy.
Mr Nshindano warned that being found with a GEN 20 form before the announcements of results is a crime because it is a security document.
It is hoped that the usual insinuations and assertions of ghost voters, vote rigging and casting of votes by people not appearing on voter registers would not arise.
Al Ghurair Printing and Publishing Company, the firm awarded the US$3.6 million contract, has over 35 years of printing experience in producing ballot papers and other election materials, newspapers, magazines, catalogues, brochures, learning materials and even books in braille.
The company, which is the only contract newspaper printer in the UAE and the biggest book printer in the Middle East with a production capacity of 15 million books per month, can also produce two million forms in one day on the fastest sheet-fed production technology in the region, and three million using web offset.
Company General Manager Lakshmanan Ganapathy said the organisation now has 14 new printing machines and has the capacity to print 10 million shirts in a day.
He informed the Zambian delegation that visited that company that the ballot papers contract would be done with ease.
Mr Ganapathy assured the stakeholders who undertook a tour of the printing plant to appreciate the equipment before commencement of printing on July 5, that his company has zero failure rate.
The printing process, which spanned over a period of 28 days, involved stakeholders reporting at the plant to work with management and verifying all ballot papers that were been transmitted from Lusaka.
ECZ also held regular briefings to ensure that queries and other information require was availed and the country was updated on progress.
It is this process that made stakeholders endorse the service provider’s capability to deliver.
NGOCC Executive Director Engwase Mwale stressed the importance of transparent, free and fair elections in a democratic state like Zambia.
Ms Mwale said NGOCC took the observation of the printing of ballot papers as one of those processes in ensuring the transparency and credibility of the August 12 elections.
As part of its all-inclusive approach to the voters, the commission also re-designed the braille voting jacket for the visually impaired.
The braille jacket, which is designed in such way that it has 16 slots for fitting ballot papers, has also braille imprints and will be used to vote for presidential, parliamentary, mayoral, council chairperson and councillor candidates.
Presiding officers and close relatives will be on hand to enable and aid the visually impaired voters to exercise their right to vote on polling day.
With a few days before polls are held next Thursday, and with the ballot papers having been delivered to Zambia, the participation of every citizen in the electoral process must be affirmed by exercising their constitutional right.
It is a fact that the holding of elections never comes cheaply.
It involves building processes and enhancing transparency which leads to credibility. – ZANIS