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Zambians Question Timing of Thursday's Election - 2001-12-25

It is Christmas, but in Zambia many people are focusing not on celebrating the holiday, but on preparing for Thursday's general elections. Zambia is one of the most heavily Christian countries in southern Africa, and critics are condemning the timing of the poll.

The sound of loudspeakers is more common in Lusaka this year than carolers. Even on one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar, political campaigners have been roaming the streets, trying to convince voters to support their candidates.

Zambians will go to the polls on December 27, just two days after Christmas, to select a new president and members of parliament.

The scheduling of the election has interrupted many people's holidays. Some government offices have had to remain open through the festive season to prepare for the poll.

Businesses, schools and universities, however, are closed. Many students and workers who spend most of the year in the capital would normally have gone back to their homes in the rural areas for the holidays. But if they are registered to vote in Lusaka, and roughly 35 percent of the country's voters are, they cannot cast their ballots anywhere else.

It is also the rainy season, which in this largely rural country could make it hard for some voters to get to polling stations.

Onlookers fear the timing of the election will keep many people away from the polls Thursday. "So that's why people generally feel that the president could have something up his sleeves," said Amos Malupenga, deputy news editor of the independent newspaper, The Post. "Because a lot of people will be sort of inconvenienced, and those who don't really attach a lot of importance to voting and elections will say, ah, to hell [with it] let me go enjoy [time] with my family. So as a result you find that more people will not be able to participate in the elections."

Some critics, including Mr. Malupenga, suspect current president Frederick Chiluba scheduled the election at a time when voters were least likely to turn out, in an effort to help his chosen successor win at the polls. What is not clear is how exactly that would work. Why would a lower turnout help the ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) and not other parties?

Ngande Mwanajiti, head of the Lusaka-based human rights group AFRONET, has long been a vocal critic of Mr. Chiluba. "It appears to me," Mr. Mwanajiti said, "that it is easier for the government of the day, for the party in government, to rig elections when you have a low turnout of voters, as opposed to when you have a high turnout of voters."

Neither Mr. Chiluba nor anybody in his government has commented on the polling date, even to defend against allegations he was trying to help his party win. He had, however, been under significant pressure to set a date - pressure from the same critics who now question the date he chose.

Other onlookers, however, doubt that the timing of the poll will actually help the ruling party. Although a low turnout is traditionally believed to favor an incumbent, there is no incumbent in this race.

It's not clear to me how it would favor the MMD either," said David Carroll, head of the Carter Center's team of election observers in Zambia, "but certainly for obvious reasons it will hurt participation in general, both because of the difficulty with the rains but also the holiday season, it makes it difficult for a lot of people."

There are plenty of other factors that could keep voter turnout low. For one thing, only about half of Zambia's eligible voters are actually registered to vote. There are also 11 presidential candidates, and a lot of voters say they have not yet decided who to support at the polls. If they cannot make up their minds by election day, analysts say they may not bother to vote at all.