March 24, 2006

No new constitution before election, says president

Zambia's ruling party endorsed a controversial new electoral bill which seeks to give President Levy Mwanawasa stronger mandate over the conduct of general elections to be held later in 2006. The bill aimed to correct a constitutional anomaly on who should set the date of the elections, Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) party national secretary Katele Kalumba explained. According to Kalumba it was in order that the president set the poll date since he had the mandate to dissolve parliament after which elections were called within 90 days.

Opposition political parties and civic watch groups have however rejected the bill, saying it did not guarantee free and fair elections and have urged the government to act on recommendations for electoral and constitutional reforms. They have called for the immediate withdrawal of the bill, saying it was flawed and highly inadequate as a basis for conducting the forthcoming tripartite elections. They also cautioned that the implementation of the bill could result in conflict and that electoral reforms could only be possible if relevant parts of the constitution were amended. "We believe that constitutional amendments are a pre-requisite for meaningful electoral reform under which the government promised the 2006 elections to be held," the groups said in a joint statement. But the government has been widely seen to have ignored the recommendations, presenting instead that new bill.

In the meantime, President Mwanawasa has also stressed that he would not bow to opposition demands for a new constitution ahead of elections expected later this year and vowed to "thrash" his opponents at the polls. Mwanawasa said Zambia's presidential and general elections would be held under the country's current constitution despite demands for an amendment to have the president elected by a 50 percent plus one vote rather than the current simple majority. According to him, the government had agreed to have the new constitution adopted through a constituent assembly rather than parliament but said that would only occur after the elections. "We will not have anything to do with constitutional matters. We will leave such matters to a constituent assembly to fix," Mwanawasa emphasised.

Analysts say Mwanawasa, who won the 2001 presidential election with 29 percent of the vote, fears he might lose the elections if the law were changed ahead of the poll. About seven opposition parties have formed two alliances in bid to defeat Mwanawasa. They plan to field single presidential candidates. Mwanawasa, however, said the opposition was weak and that he would beat them at the polls. "When people begin to assemble in small groups, then it means I am a force to reckon with. I am in no doubt that my colleagues (in the ruling party) and I will triumph," he said. (Sapa / The Mail & Guardian, South Africa)

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