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Key findings
  • Although Zambians have long been committed to the ideals of democracy, their satisfaction with the way democracy actually works in their country has sunk from a majority 68% in 2012 to a minority 49% in 2017
  • People sense a decline in freedom of speech. The proportion expressing a need to “be careful what they say about politics” has risen by 10 percentage points, from 62% to 72%, between 2012 and 2017.
  • They also perceive a closure of space for political association. As of April 2017, Zambians perceive less rather than more freedom for opposition parties to operate (46% vs. 35%).
  • Only about one-third (36%) of Zambians feel comfortable offering criticism of President Edgar Lungu.
  • Yet most Zambians favour checks on the president’s executive powers. For example, more than six in 10 (64%) think the president should be monitored by Parliament, and seven in 10 (71%) say he should always obey the laws and courts.

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.

Michael Bratton

Michael is a co-founder and board member at Afrobarometer

Boniface Dulani

Boni is the director of surveys at Afrobarometer

Sibusiso Nkomo

Sibusiso is Programme Manager, Africa Office at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership