Political hopefuls in Zambia are signing 'social contracts' with disillusioned voters ahead of a September 28 election in which poverty, health, public services and corruption are expected to be major campaign issues.
Zambia recently ushered in a series of laws and regulations designed to deliver a fair and transparent vote after international observers roundly condemned the last general elections, held in 2001, amid allegations of fraud and vote rigging.
The Citizens' Forum, an organisation advocating good governance and issue-based electoral campaigns, said the introduction of 'social contracts' between politicians and the public would help to boost voter confidence ahead of the presidential, parliamentary and local elections. It said the contracts would also go some way to ensuring promises made during the campaign were kept after the ballot.
"Politicians have been cheating our people for a long time," said Citizens' Forum spokesperson Simon Kabanda. "We are now compelling them to sign social contracts outlining all the priority needs of a particular community, so that in the future they will be measured against their own words."
In the run-up to the election, the Forum has been helping communities to clarify their specific development needs. "Most rural communities are citing the construction of social facilities like schools, clinics and roads as their priority areas, while in urban areas people are generally looking at creating jobs to absorb our current high number of unemployed youths and graduates," Kabanda said.
Although candidates will be forced to sign the contracts, they are not legally enforceable, so for all their good intentions they might have little or no influence on candidates after the election.
"The contracts will help bring out the economic and social problems that impact directly on the rights of the electorate, despite the fact that the legality and enforceability of these contracts is doubtful," said Mumba Malila, chair of the government's Permanent Human Rights Commission.
Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, who scraped to victory by only one percent in the disputed 2001 elections, has been praised by western donors for launching an anti-corruption drive and improving the country's economy, but criticised by Zambian opposition groups for failing to alleviate poverty in a country where about one in five adults is HIV positive.
Mwanawasa, seeking a second five-year term as head of the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy, is being challenged by several opposition candidates, who said he should step down. The incumbent's health has become a major campaign issue since he suffered a stroke in April and received treatment in the United Kingdom.
Michael Sata of the opposition Patriotic Front, the main challenger, is promising to reduce the country's tax rates: Zambia's 4,000 government workers pay monthly taxes of between 35 percent and 37 percent of their basic pay.
Businessman Hakainde Hichilema's United Democratic Alliance is looking to woo voters by offering free education up to university level - education is currently free only up to grade seven - while former Cabinet minister Godfrey Miyanda's Heritage Party has pledged to revitalise the agricultural sector.
New electoral laws ban the use of public money for campaigning by the ruling party and forbid biased coverage by the state-owned media. The Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) has also introduced new cards for voters and transparent ballot boxes to help guarantee a fair vote.
"The media has really conducted itself professionally so far, because we all have access at any time," said Langton Sichone of the opposition Zambia Democratic Congress party. "Although there may be one or two things not being done right."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions