Damaging Zambia: Why parliamentary floor-crossing dents our democracy
By Elias Munshya, LLM, M.Div., M.A., LLB, B.A.
Multi-party participatory democracy is deeply weaved in the very fabric of Zambian democracy. It should be an offence under the penalty of treason to undermine our democratic foundations fortified by the concrete beams of multipartyism. Zambians fought Kenneth Kaunda’s one-party participatory democracy because we knew the benefit that lay in having parties freely compete for support in the market place of democracy. Weak and sometimes inefficient as they are, political parties provide a primary platform to debate ideas and policies that strengthen our nation. In our constitution, presidential candidates must be members or should be sponsored by a political party. In parliament, our constitution recognizes the role that political parties play by crafting our democratic instructions in terms of the ruling party, the opposition party and other political parties.
Parties are important for several reasons. First, they provide a platform to test political ideas and persuasions. Second, parties provide a platform to assess leaders, at least in theory. Third, parties provide checks and balances. If political leaders go against party policy, the party that sponsored them can always attempt to bring them into line. Fourth, political parties provide the restraint desirable in political players. Left on their own, MPs can grow brains and get into serious mischief. Fifth, political parties are smaller models of what national governance should look like. We should be able to look at how someone runs their political party to judge how effective or ineffective their leadership could be. Sixth, and most importantly, political parties provide a stage for political organisation, civic association and electoral mobilization.
Our constitution protects our multi-party system by putting in place mechanisms by which the party political system must be respected. A member of parliament, who resigns from the party that sponsored her to parliament, must relinquish her parliamentary seat (Article 71). This is a reasonable system to ensure that political parties have a voice in the governance of the nation. Additionally, if an MP is not conforming to party policy, the party has the right to suspend or expel that MP. Party leaders should have the power to intervene, suspend and expel their erring MPs. That is the nature of our system.
The idea that MPs who go to parliament should be beyond the reach of party discipline is repugnant to me and certainly distasteful to our democratic system. Multi-partyism is the system we have chosen for our selves and we had better make good use of it. I know some people who hate political parties. Well, here is some news to such characters; the Zambian system is a party political system. We do partisan politics. We are a partisan nation. And that is well within the nature of our democracy.
It is in this vein that we must interpret the recent remarks by Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba (GBM). On Wednesday 22 July 2015, GBM got appointed to the position of Vice-President of the United Party for National Development (UPND). However, he refused to step down as the Patriotic Front (PF) Kasama Member of Parliament (MP). Essentially, GBM wants to do a double tobela. He wants to be a Vice-President of the UPND while at the same time serving as a member of parliament for a different political party. The Zambian constitution forbids what GBM claims he is doing. By joining the UPND, he has lost the parliamentary seat, which he acquired as a member of the Patriotic Front.
Both UPND president Hakainde Hichilema and GBM know that they cannot hold on to a PF seat. I think though, that their words are some kind of a protest at the way President Lungu and his predecessors have wantonly ignored the sacredness of our party political system. Beginning with Levy Mwanawasa, presidents have unashamedly poached opposition MPs by appointing them to cabinet and then using them for partisan interests of the ruling party. In the case of Edgar Lungu, he has poached several UPND MPs, and in spite of legitimate protests from the UPND leadership and membership, Lungu has not relented in using these UPND MPs for Patriotic Front partisan business. Perhaps the most bizarre of these machinations was when Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) MP Vincent Mwale served as campaign manager for a PF parliamentary candidate in the recent by-elections in which the MMD, which sent him to parliament, was supposed to participate. The idea that Vincent Mwale is beyond the reach of his principal Nevers Mumba is an affront to democracy. Equally, the idea that Greyford Monde should be beyond the reach of UPND discipline when it is the UPND that sponsored him to parliament is ridiculous. In fact, it is as ridiculous as GBM defiantly grandstanding that he has a right to be a PF MP when he has clearly joined the UPND.
Apparently, President Levy Mwanawasa started this deplorable practice. According to Levy, since the constitution says the President can appoint a cabinet from parliament, the president could appoint to parliament any MP she wants. Levy was both right and wrong. He was right that a president could appoint any MP, but Levy was wrong to preach that the president could ignore opposition political party leaders by poaching MPs without sanction of the sponsoring party. The constitution should never be interpreted in ways that undermine multipartyism and pluralism. A president who wants to work with opposition MPs should first get permission from the particular party. Under this arrangement, both the president’s party and the concerned opposition party will then have some kind of an alliance (or coalition) to rule together. Brazenly poaching MPs from parties does not advance our democratic ideals it undermines it.
President Lungu should forthwith reconsider his appointment of opposition MPs and have these MPs amenable to the discipline of their political parties. Lungu cannot justify his actions simply because Levy did it. “Levy did it”, is not justification enough to break, damage, and then undermine a fundamental character of our democratic system. If Lungu really likes Levy, he should copy the good things Levy did and not copy Levy’s bad manners. Levy helped Zambia reduce kaloba, he invested wisely in infrastructure, the kwacha was under control and he fought corruption. Those are the good things to copy.
For now, I am almost certain that there will be a by-election in Kasama. GBM cannot sustain the claim to a PF seat. As the by-election approaches, I am sure the UPND will make huge gains. GBM’s move to the UPND is certainly a game changer. God bless our partisan republic.