Discussions of democratic erosion tend to focus on the negative: obstacles facing pro-democratic movements, the rise of populism, or the horrific consequences of authoritarianism on human rights. Often, we’re able to pinpoint backsliding after the fact, but stopping backsliding in the midst of its occurrence, and creating a more democratic state afterwards is a remarkable phenomena that few others have accomplished. Zambia’s case is a unique one, and many of its achievements have not been able to be replicated by other states facing democratic erosion, despite having greater resources and higher development. The landslide election of opposition leader Haikainde Hichilema through strong civil society can be takeaways for many states worldwide, and prove that while Zambia may not be a large world power in the global sphere, it deserves to be recognized for its democratic achievements.
There is no denying that democracy tends to be viewed in a neoliberal, eurocentric lens, with many African nations not able to receive proper credit for their achievements. Zambia tends to go unnoticed within the global sphere, with the World Bank approximating that 58% of Zambians continue to live below the poverty line, with many surviving on as little as $1.90 cents a day. The state has had an extensive history regarding its democracy. After Zambia became independent from British rule in 1964, Prime Minister Kenneth Kaunda became the newly created republic’s president.
By 1990, the Zambian state was torn apart from years of Kaunda’s rule, resulting in mass distrust and political frustration. This resulted in an attempted military coup and mass protest in opposition to the Zambian regime under Kaunda. With widespread opposition, Kaunda had no choice but to concede. Remarkably, Zambia had continued a trend of democracy since its ousting of an authoritarian President, who had been in office more than 27 years.
In Zambia’s case, while Kaunda attempted to decolonize Zambia’s economy through complete nationalization, it resulted in dire consequences for the state such as massive corruption and immense inflation exponentially increasing the prices of basic necessities, regardless of the progress made towards 2nd generation rights such as health and education.
Following Kaunda’s concession, the Zambian state abolished its one party system in October 1991, marking the beginning of the nation’s path to democratization.
The Republic has a history of a strong civil society, which was highlighted in its earlier mass movements for Kaunda’s removal and protests of anti-corruption. As scholar Sheri Bernman writes,“Civil society…was an antidote to the political viruses that afflicted mass society,” (Berman 403) illustrating that a powerful civil society is key to overcoming issues within the regime, electing a leader that promotes a democratic state, or calling for political change in office. Since the state was able to successfully oust Kaunda through civil unrest, it becomes essential to its success later on when discussing how the Zambian state was able to overcome Edgar Lungu’s anti-democratic attempts of undoing the constitution and of winning a second term.
Former President Edgar Lungu, whose election victory in 2015 showed the authoritative figure’s narrow victory margin who was elected on a miniscule 2% majority with a shockingly low voter turnout, with only 32%, or less than ⅓ of the total registered voters actively participating in the election against 5-time running candidate, Hakainde Hichilema.
Within his presidency, Edgar Lungu strategically undid many of the democratic pillars of Zambian democracy. Lungu’s attempts began quietly, participating in a practice known as “Stealth Authoritarianism,” coined by scholar Ozan Varol. Stealth Authoritarianism’s practices, as Varol writes, “use the law to entrench the status quo, insulate the incumbents from meaningful democratic challenges, and pave the way for the creation of a dominant-party or one-party state.” (Varol 1677) The distinction is that Stealth Authoritarianism “uses the same laws and legal institutions that exist in democratic regimes for anti-democratic purposes.” (Varol 1678)
One of Lungu’s most prominent anti-democratic attempts was through challenging the constitution in order to pursue a third term, which was limited to 2 terms prior. Though undemocratic, Lungu’s argument was that his first term should not count as one, as he served only a year after Michael Sata, his predecessor’s death. Ultimately, the courts ruled in Lungu’s favor, granting him the opportunity to run for a previously unconstitutional 3rd term. Through his strategic move, Lungu was able to support his movements for anti-democracy through the basis of constitutional law.
Another instance of Lungu’s corruption was through frequent attempts of arrest of opposition leader Hichilema, whether it be for inciting protest on the rumored sale of a state-owned company or for “treason,” charges. Knowing that Hichilema would be undermined and ineligible to run for president when serving a sentence under Zambian Law, Lungu knew that using the law as a basis of anti-democratic practices would make his undoing of democracy much more difficult to overcome.
Lungu’s frequent anti-democratic decisions put him in a powerful position, with the odds of winning the 2021 election in his favor. Nevertheless, the undoing of Zambian institutions to undermine democracy by Lungu was unsuccessful when opposition leader Haikainde Hichilema won the 2021 in a landslide victory of a million votes higher than incumbent Lungu. With Lungu’s frequent “stealth authoritarian” tactics through the basis of the law, how were his attempts of democratic erosion reversed? Scholars point to Hichilema’s strong campaign, as well as the impact of civil society when explaining his victory.
His sixth attempt at running for presidency, Hichilema focused on the mistakes of his previous campaigns. Recognizing that gaining the support of the opposition to Lungu, many of whom had served under him previously and had positive reputations, would be crucial to Hichilema’s United Party for National Development’s (UPND) victory. From his previous failed attempts, Hichilema realized the need for urban and youth support in his election. Through strategic targeting of urban areas such as Lusaka, Hichilema was able to run successful social media campaigns that garnered mass support for him in crucial voting groups.
The additional impact that civil society played in securing Hichilema’s victory was equally, if not more important. Organizations like Alliance for Community Action (ACA) and Governance, Elections, Advocacy, Research Services (GEARS) , were responsible for raising awareness of voter protection laws and promoting civic participation, as well as monitoring the voting constituencies on election day. However, the most important impact was the court cases initiated by civil society against the abuses of power occuring within the Zambian state against Lungu. Regardless of the cases’ victories, they helped to spark attention to Lungu’s corruption, which was just another tactic that successfully ended his presidency, as well as democratic erosion under him.
Western society may not see the significance of Zambia’s political system and its ability to overcome and reverse backsliding, but the southern African nation was able to do what many other more developed and wealthier nations were not: preserve its legacy of being a highly democratic African nation and overcome democratic erosion. With anti-democratic practices and rising authoritarianism being the trend worldwide, looking at successful cases to preserve democracy across the globe is more important than ever. Zambia’s successful transition to democracy and its emphasis on civil society sparks a lesson for nations worldwide not to doubt smaller, more impoverished countries: they may end up succeeding at what many others have not.