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Zambia’s Regime Change: An Opportunity for Public Administration Reforms?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sombo Muzata
October 7, 2021

Zambia’s President, Hakainde Hichilema, and Sombo Muzata in 2016


On August 12, 2021, Zambians voted in heavily contested presidential, parliamentary and local government elections. Hakainde Hichilema, of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), won the presidency with a little under a million votes against the incumbent Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front party (PF). It is not easy to defeat a sitting president in an election, especially in Africa, where some individuals become default life presidents. However, Zambians do it with ease. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1964, Zambia has successfully transitioned power in a largely peaceful manner and unseated three sitting presidents. With the 2021 general elections, the country continued on its reputation as a beacon of peace and an example of democracy to the continent of Africa and the entire world.

The 2021 elections were held in the backdrop of a raging global pandemic, the death of the country’s founding President, Dr. Kenneth David Kaunda, years of poor economic performance and repression of the opposition by the then ruling Patriotic Front party. Zambians are very decisive people, and they came out in large numbers to cast their votes for change. About 70% of the registered voters cast ballots

Why is public administration important for elections, and why are elections essential for public administration? This article shares brief perspectives to address these two questions. 

Public Administration and Elections

Public administration is vital for elections. Though elections are a political activity, the entire process of managing elections is a public administration matter. From voter education, voter registration, voters roll verification, campaigns, casting ballots, the announcement of results and post-election processes, it is all public administration at work. Any flaw in each of these processes is a reflection of the public administration system. Where public administrators become political or are grossly intimidated by politicians, deficiencies in the administration of elections are evident. It is not uncommon for politicians to attempt to exert authority during elections. Evidence such as restricting access by opposition leaders to national resources like broadcasting services, detaining or arresting opposition leaders during campaigns, shutting down the internet during elections and claims of the opposition stealing the elections are all acts of political interference in the administration of elections. Like other countries that have held elections recently, including the United States and Uganda, Zambia experienced political interference in the administration of its elections. 

Public administration needs to be independent of political interference and allowed to manage the entire electoral process professionally. Politicians should not wield so much power to overtake the management of elections and cast doubt in the electorate’s minds on the integrity of the process.

Elections and Public Administration 

Elections are essential for public administration because the outcome determines the policy direction and development outcomes for an election cycle. Historically, public administration reforms in Zambia have mirrored political party aspirations. At independence in 1964, the new government was concerned with consolidating its power, and as time passed, they pursued several public administration goals. Approaches akin to Weberian public administration i.e., hierarchical, career-organized, competence based and rule were implemented by the United Party for National Independence (UNIP). In 1991, Zambians elected the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) to power, ending the 27 years of UNIP rule. During the MMD, public administration reforms reflected New Public Management (NPM) approaches and included establishing the policy analysis and coordination division and privatization, among other NPM ideals. An anti-corruption agenda was also pursued. The Patriotic Front was elected to lead in 2011 and their approach was a mix of all the previous regimes’ public administration approaches. 

As noted, elections are an opportunity for public administration reforms. Zambia can build on the gains made in previous regimes and take a step of boldness for greater accountability and transparency. New Public Service ideals proposed by Denhardt and Denhardt could be the next natural step for Zambia to take if the UPND’s goals are accountability and transparency in government and service to citizens. 


Elections are the best time to see the separation of politics and administration in a country and learn more about the century-old debate on politics—administration dichotomy. Regime changes through elections bring expectations and hope to the people, and a regime change is an opportunity for public administration reforms. In the case of Zambia, the expectations and hope built up during the ten years of the Patriotic Front rule. Whether those expectations and hopes will be met by the new President and political party is intertwined with public administration. 

Author: Sombo Muzata recently completed her Ph.D. in public policy and administration from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. Before graduate school, Sombo worked as country manager in Zambia for the Swedish international nonprofit, Diakonia. She is a 2019 recipient of the Walter W. Mode Scholarship from ASPA. [email protected]; Twitter @ChundaSombo

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