Zambia's official election body has expressed serious concerns about outbreaks of political violence seen across the landlocked southern African country ahead of presidential polls slated for Jan. 20, threatening to disqualify violators.
"There are widespread pockets of political violence that have characterized the campaigns for the forthcoming presidential by-elections," Irene Mambilima, chairperson of the Electoral Commission of Zambia, told The Anadolu Agency in an exclusive interview.
She cited a recent attempt by certain political groups in the Shiwa Ngandu area of Zambia's Northern Province to torch a helicopter belonging to an opposition party.
Last week in Mongu, the provincial capital of Western Province, supporters of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) clashed with supporters of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND).
Violence erupted when UPND leader and presidential candidate Hakainde Hichilema refused to delay his helicopter's departure until a plane carrying acting President Guy Scott could land.
When the helicopter tried to take off, suspected PF supporters – who had been awaiting Scott's arrival – charged towards it and began throwing stones, sparking a fierce fight between Hichilema's supporters and PF cadres.
Mambilima regretted that the perpetrators of recent political violence appeared to be supporters of the country's two main parties.
"If things remain as they are right now and elections go on as planned, the result could be violence, and the desire to have a free and fair presidential by-election will be far-fetched," she warned.
Zambians will go to the polls on Jan. 20 to elect a new president following the death of President Michael Sata in a London hospital late last year.
There are 5,166,088 registered voters in Zambia, which has a population of over 13 million, according to a 2010 national census conducted by Zambia's official statistics agency.
Voters will choose from among 11 contenders, including Defense and Justice Minister Edgar Lungu, who is contesting the race on the PF's ticket.
According to Mambilima, political parties should shoulder their responsibility to end political violence.
"We have called for an emergency stakeholders' meeting this Friday to discuss the contentious issues likely to affect the forthcoming elections," she told AA.
"We expect politicians at this meeting to find a solution to end this violence," she added.
"If they don't, the commission may be forced to come up with punitive measures, which the affected political parties may not like," she warned.
Mambilima recalled that, in 2013, the electoral commission had to temporarily suspend parliamentary polls in the city of Livingstone due to excessive violence.
"The presidential by-election cannot be suspended. The only remedy, therefore, is to sanction political parties whose supporters perpetrate violence," she told AA.
"We hope a solution to end violence… is found at the Friday meeting; otherwise, the political parties found wanting might be disqualified," Mambilima asserted.
Boniface Chembe, executive director of the Southern Africa Center for Constructive Resolution of Disputes, an NGO that promotes democracy and peace in the sub-region, said Zambia's deteriorating security situation was the prime source of conflict ahead of the polls.
"We agree with the position taken by the election commission [which is] demanding measures to end electoral violence," he told AA.
"As a way of reaching this goal, we need all-inclusive dialogue in which all issues can be addressed by stakeholders before the election," Chembe said.
He said the legitimacy of the upcoming poll would depend largely on the willingness of political parties to eschew violence.
Chembe added, however, that logistic challenges – especially those related to designing and printing ballots – were also a source of concern.
Mambilima said the ballots, which were printed in South Africa, had already arrived in the country.
"The distribution of electoral materials will take place soon," she told AA.
Meanwhile, MacDonald Chipenzi, executive director of the Foundation for Democratic Process, another NGO, complained about the lack of transparency in the electoral process.
"Imagine, even now, political parties don't have a revised voter register to see how many people will vote in the forthcoming presidential by-election," he told AA.
"The document [voter register] will be given to electorates at the last minute; people will not have time to make relevant verifications," Chipenzi asserted.
If the voter register wasn't availed to people on time, he warned, it would trigger suspicions of possible vote rigging.
"All these are potential sources of violence," Chipenzi said. "Unless measures are put in place fast, conflict will always be there."
He stressed that his organization did not want to see any poll-related bloodshed.
"That's why we are calling on the candidates, the government, and the electoral commission to ensure that the country does not revert to violence," Chipenzi told AA.