Low voter registration and low vote turnout bad for democracy

By Emmanuel Nyirenda

Recently the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) expressed disappointment that the targeted number of new voters  in the 2015 registration exercise had not been realised, forcing it to extend the registration by 21 days from 23 November to 13 December, 2015. More than  1.7 million new voters, particularly youths who qualified since the last registration exercise, should have registered since September.

Of additional significance was its observation that only Southern Province had recorded a high turnout for registration. All other provinces recorded below 50 percent. Yet it is clear  that this could not  have been due to lack of publicity since ECZ mounted what many agree was an effective national campaign advising those who qualified to register as voters to do so.

Apart from mobile voter registration, several centres were opened for the purpose and the huge turnout recorded on the last day testified to the fact that many people were aware of the exercise and the closing day but had left it to the last day. How Zambians take advantage of the extension to register can make a difference in the exercise of democracy and indeed whether the proposed amendments to Part III of the current constitution and indeed adoption of so-called controversial propositions of the draft constitution.

Political parties and civil society organisations now have a mammoth task urging those who hadn’t to take advantage of the extension.

Political parties have everything to gain from an increased number of voters just as civil society organisation can justify their claim as stakeholder representative  bodies by educating Zambians about the importance of a vote not only in the choice of government  but in pursuance of good governance and development.

The turnout in Southern  Province and Western Province in the 2015 Presidential by-elections showed how advantageous it was for the United Party for National Development (UPND) which did poorly in other provinces but got quite close to winning the presidency through the high vote turn out in the two provinces, regarded as its strongholds.

An average of less than 35 percent voted in the 2015 presidential by-election out of about 5 million registered voters. Because of the high turnout in the UPND strongholds only a few thousands separated the winner, President Edgar Lungu and Hikainde Hichilema who came second.

If the same pattern is repeated in the 2016 elections, Hichilema whose strongholds registered a high turnout in the 2015 registration of voters will need only a small increase of votes in  the other provinces to win.

Many observers believe President Edgar Lungu would have won by a huge margin if the turnout in his party’s stronghold provinces of Northern, Luapula, Muchinga, Eastern and Copperbelt provinces had been higher than the 33 percent. He will need a higher turnout in his strongholds in order to win convincingly in the 2016 elections.

Experts  assert that a low turnout benefits the opposition and that  although the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) had  captured more provinces than the PF in the 2011 elections the then opposition party won by a huge margin largely because of poor turnout in what were regarded as MMD strongholds.

They observe that  during elections, especially after change of government, those in favour of the opposition tend to be more motivated to vote out the incumbent and so go out in greater numbers than those in favour of the ruling party, some of whose supporters relax in the mistaken  belief that  there  are  many enough supporters to win even without their vote.

For civil society organisations, a high turnout  removes the basis for doubting the popularity of  a person elected president. Further, particularly for those who demand national referendum to adopt the new constitution, the exercise would be a futile one if less than 50 percent persons eligible to vote participate.

Strategists for political parties, particularly the two main ones – PF and UPND – will thus have to find ways of not only retaining their strongholds but also ensuring that there are huge turnouts. The starting point is registration of voters in order to be assured of a corresponding support at the  2016 polls. Some of those persuaded to register as voters are likely to vote in favour of those who persuade them.