AD157: Zambia at a crossroads: Will citizens defend democracy?

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Satisfaction with democracy | Zambia | 2012-2017
Michael Bratton, Boniface Dulani, and Sibusiso Nkomo

If democracy is “rule by the people,” then “the people” play a decisive part in determining the health of this form of government. Especially when an incumbent president seeks to accumulate excessive powers, the question arises: Will people stand up to defend democracy?

Today, Zambia has arrived at a crossroads. A convergence of troubling trends is evident: The quality of elections has deteriorated, the police and courts are losing independence, the space for political expression has shrunk, the leader of the political opposition languishes in jail, opposition legislators have been banished from Parliament, and an over-reaching president has imposed a state of emergency (Agence France-Presse, 2017). 

How do ordinary citizens react as such developments unfold? Do they consider that their country is backsliding from a functioning electoral democracy to a dominant-party autocracy? Are they predisposed to act as everyday guardians of democracy in the face of power plays by the executive?

This report addresses these questions by means of a nationally representative Afrobarometer survey of public opinion conducted in Zambia in April 2017. The survey results show that, while Zambians remain firmly committed to democratic ideals, they worry that, in practice, their own democracy has begun to erode. They recognize that political space is closing with regard to basic rights such as freedom of speech. They assess the performance of the incumbent negatively, especially in terms of economic management, corruption control, and police repression. In response, Zambian citizens – notably those with most education, but less so for those with limited schooling – are sounding an alarm. They are reiterating solid and sustained support for institutional checks and balances and a firm rejection of one-man rule.