"The mischief of the UPND is forcing us to comment on it, otherwise we have no business with what is happening in parliament,” said Amos Chanda, a spokesman for the presidency. “The speaker acted in line with the standing orders of the national assembly."
The suspension of the 48 MPs means that they are banned from entering the country’s parliament in Lusaka and will not be paid.
The UPND lawmakers had boycotted a speech in March by President Lungu during the official opening of parliament, saying they did not recognise him as leader.
“We are commenting on this matter only as far as it goes to explain that the government is not involved at all,” Chanda told RFI in a telephone interview, outlining the three arms of government. The division between the presidency, parliament and judiciary guarantees "the principle separation of powers" and ensures appropriate "checks and balances" are in place, Chanda added.
Ten of the opposition party’s MPs were not included in the suspension because they had officially excused themselves from parliamentary business on the day of the president’s speech.
The speaker of the house on Tuesday confronted the MPs and encouraged them to quit if they did not recognise the president. “I challenge you to resign on moral grounds if you do not recognise that there is a legitimately elected government,” said Speaker Patrick Matibini, according to reports by the AFP news agency.
The suspension of the MPs comes as UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema languishes in jail facing treason charges. Hichilema was arrested and charged following an incident between a convoy of opposition vehicles and Lungu’s motorcade.
Rights group Amnesty International has described the case against Hichilema as “trumped-up treason charges” which are designed to “harass and intimidate” the country’s main opposition party.
Hichilema narrowly lost Zambia’s 2016 election to Lungu and launched a legal challenge to the result citing a number of irregularities. Some experts have previously described Hichilema’s arrest as evidence of Lungu’s “increasingly authoritarian bent”.
“It does suggest a hardening of the government’s stance and that the government isn’t willing to deal with the current political impasse,” said political analyst Nic Cheeseman, in discussion of the suspension of the 48 MPs.
“We all know that the committee that makes these decisions [about suspending the MPs] is a committee of members of parliament and the majority of that committee are members of the ruling party,” said Cheeseman, an academic at the University of Birmingham.
“It’s very difficult for the government to fully disassociate itself from this and we also know that this is part of a raft of different measures including the arrest of the opposition leader,” Cheeseman told RFI.
The Zambia expert says the actual procedure used to suspend the MPs is subject to debate, describing rules outlining the permission needed to be absent from the country’s assembly. However, he says it does appear to be a “heavy-handed response” to the boycott of the president’s speech. “This seems to be using a hammer to crack a nutshell,” added Cheeseman.