Zambia’s democracy needs a savior, and many believe that savior just might be the newly elected President Hichilema. Since his election in 2021, Hichilema’s Zambia has seen massive reductions in inflation, the strengthening of their currency, and large movements toward dispersing federal power into the hands of local governments. These actions are taking great strides in the health of the Zambian democracy and economy. Continuing on his campaign promises, Hichilema has also drastically increased funding to the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to crack down on abuses of political power. On paper, this grants legitimacy to his administration and seems like democratic progress. However, the ACC’s recent crackdown on corruption is specifically targeted at the Administration’s political opponents. This erodes Zambian democracy by tilting elections in their favor, eliminating political competition, and fanning the flames of populism.
In the first week of October 2022, the Zambian ACC arrested the former Attorney General, the former Minister of Health, and the former Secretary for the Administration for conspiracy to defraud the state. In the same week, another member of the opposition party was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Commission. In the preceding weeks, several employees and family members, including the wife of former President Edgar Lungu have been detained and questioned. The issue at hand is not necessarily that the charges are false, (although there have been many charges and very few convictions) but that they are politically motivated and target only the opposition party. Many opponents of the current administration as well as international observers have deemed it a witch hunt.
The recent corruption arrests demonstrate what one scholar describes as Stealth Authoritarianism because it tilts the electoral playing field in the favor of the incumbent through technically legal means. By arresting opponents for non-political crimes that are likely accurate charges, the government does not raise any domestic or international alarm bells for suppressing their political opponents. This makes their steps toward authoritarianism more difficult to detect and to call out. Their seeming commitment to the rule of law can even make them look more democratic.
However, this targeted suppression of political opponents is what How Democracies Die authors, Levitsky and Ziblatt, compare to ‘sidelining the other team’s star players’ in a soccer match. It kills democracy by strongly weakening political competition and the potential for the alternation of power. The arrests of members of the former administration not only prevent those specific people from running against or speaking out against the current regime, but they also act as an intimidation tactic. Members of the opposition who have not yet been targeted in the anti-corruption crusade may refrain from taking any political action out of fear for retaliation. Therefore, these arrests serve not only to directly eliminate opponents from the electoral playing field, but also to prevent potential opponents from entering the political sphere. This grants immense power to the incumbents by weakening any challengers to their power.
After the arrests and intimidation, if any political challengers still have the courage to run an opposition campaign, these corruption charges will present them with a legitimacy crisis. The incumbents have used the power of their office to make their opponents look like corrupt criminals. This defies a major tenant of healthy government outlined in How Democracies Die of mutual toleration; the idea that parties see each other as legitimate competitors. The narrative of corruption undermines the idea that the opposition party is a valid challenger to the incumbent. If the public sees them as illegitimate, it further enables the incumbents’ persecutions and even can facilitate public enthusiasm for authoritarian actions.
This delegitimization of the opposing party dangerously cements Hichilema as a populist. The book What is Populism? emphasizes that a crucial tenet of a populist leader is the claim that they, and they alone represent the people. By using government power to tout the corruption of his opponents, Hichilema frames himself as the only valid, moral ruler. With some already calling him a ‘miracle worker,’ Hichilema’s broad public support has already allowed him to escape accountability for blatantly anti-democratic actions like the two-year imprisonments of people who have insulted him on the internet. With his continued anti-corruption campaign, he only gains more public support for himself and vitriol against his opponents. This paves the way for him to take even further authoritarian action with an adoring public standing firm behind him.
Ultimately, this month’s politically motivated arrests against members of the previous administration show a dangerous backsliding of democracy. It tilts elections in favor of the incumbents and eliminates political competition by arresting, intimidating, and delegitimizing the opposition. The actions are particularly stealthy because anti-corruption measures are generally good for democracy. They become dangerous when it becomes a pattern to strategically use non-political crimes to target challengers to the administration’s power. Hichilema’s weaponization of political crimes to delegitimize his opponents increases his populist appeal, which can, and to some extent already has, led to a future where he takes authoritarian actions that are largely backed by the people.