Half of Zambians aren’t happy with their democracy — and that’s a big change

For 25 years, Zambia helped set the pace toward democratic consolidation in Africa. The country was quick to transition to a multiparty system, held six competitive elections and saw peaceful shifts of ruling parties. Based on past surveys, Zambians express among the longest and strongest attachments to the principles of democracy of people anywhere in Africa.

The past year, however, has seen authoritarian backsliding, marked by a government crackdown on free speech and the press. Since August 2016 elections marred by violent demonstrations, the opposition leader has been jailed, opposition members of Parliament have been banished, and a state of emergency has suspended civil liberties and granted the police increased powers of arrest and detention. Zambia’s church leaders recently warned that the country is, “except in designation, a dictatorship.”

What do ordinary Zambians think?

A recent national Afrobarometer survey shows that ordinary Zambians also see their democracy as beginning to erode (see detailed analysis here).

In face-to-face interviews in April 2017, two out of three Zambians say their country is headed in the wrong direction — a stark reversal from 2012, when only 29 percent felt that way (see Figure 1). This mirrors what Zambians think about economic conditions in the country: Large majorities say that their national economy is underperforming (60 percent) and that the government is doing poorly at creating jobs (77 percent), narrowing income gaps (80 percent) and keeping prices stable (81 percent).

And two out of three Zambians believe official corruption increased (“somewhat” or “a lot”) over the past year, while 70 percent consider that the government is handling the fight against official corruption “fairly badly” or “very badly.” A similar proportion say they fear retaliation or other negative consequences if they report incidents of corruption.

Figure 1: Direction of the country | Zambia | 2012-2017 The April 2017 Afrobarometer survey asked Zambians whether the country was going in the right or wrong direction and what they thought about the country’s economic condition. Data: Afrobarometer.

Despite the economic challenges, Zambians remain strongly committed to the ideals of democracy, according to the April survey. They overwhelmingly prefer democracy to any other form of government (81 percent) and reject authoritarian systems such as one-party rule (82 percent), military rule (92 percent) and rule by a big-man dictator (92 percent, up from 87 percent in 2012) (see Figure 2). Most Zambians favor checks on the president’s executive powers: 64 percent think Parliament should monitor the president and 71 percent think he should always obey the courts. And 84 percent favor a limit of two five-year terms for the presidency.

Figure 2: Political regime preferences | Zambia | 1999-2017 The Afrobarometer survey asked respondents whether they approved or disapproved of single-party rule, military rule, and dictatorship, then asked their opinion on democracy as a form of government. Data: Afrobarometer.

Fewer Zambians are confident of their democracy

But further survey responses suggest Zambians aren’t seeing these principles in practice, and confidence in the quality of the country’s democracy is declining (see Figure 3):

  • Only half are satisfied with “the way democracy works” in Zambia, down from 68 percent in 2012.
  • This sharp downward trend is echoed in the proportion who see their country as a “full” or almost full democracy, which fell from 76 percent to 59 percent over the past five years.
  • Only 60 percent of Zambians see President Lungu’s election in 2016 as free and fair, compared to 86 percent approval for the 2011 contest that first elected President Sata.
  • Almost half of all citizens (47 percent) say they “personally fear becoming a victim of political intimidation or violence” during elections.
  • The proportion expressing a need to “be careful what they say about politics” has risen 10 points, from 62 percent to 72 percent, between 2012 and 2017.
  • Barely one in three Zambians (36 percent) feel comfortable in offering criticism of the president.
Figure 3: Satisfaction with democracy | Zambia | 2012-2017 Survey respondents shared their thoughts on the quality of Zambia’s democracy, including to what extent the last national election was free and fair, as well as their personal fears of political intimidation or violence. Data: Afrobarometer.

Afrobarometer has used trends in public opinion to appraise political risk in Africa. In countries such as Kenya, Mali and Zimbabwe, rapid drops in popular political satisfaction have correlated to risk to democratic regimes. In Kenya and Zimbabwe, such risk was manifest in violent elections; in Mali, an ill-prepared military coup overthrew the civilian government.

What happens next in Zambia remains unclear, but early warning signals are present that the country’s hard-won democracy may well be in danger.

Michael Bratton is University Distinguished Professor of Political Science and African Studies at Michigan State University and senior adviser to Afrobarometer.
Boniface Dulani is a senior lecturer in the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at the University of Malawi and Afrobarometer’s operations manager for fieldwork in southern and francophone Africa.

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