New leader, new problems?

New leader, new problems?
  • PublishedFebruary 22, 2015

Edgar Lungu is Zambia’s 6th post-independence president after a nail-biting election, held on 20 January, to replace Michael Sata, who died last October. Lungo beat his opponent, Hakainde Hichilema, by a small margin. Our Lusaka correspondent Reginald Ntomba tried to keep up with the hectic pace of events.

Zambia has a new president – the 6th in its 50 years of independence. Seven candidates lined up but the real race was between 52-year-old millionaire businessman Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND) and 58-year-old lawyer, Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front (PF).

The road leading to the election was as eventful as it was chaotic. It was an election that redrew the country’s political map following a quick and dramatic shift of loyalties caused by protracted intraparty wrangles. These elections demonstrated the saying that “in politics there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests” – and those interests in this case were the fight for state power.

The campaign was at times characterised by violent incidents, as supporters of the two frontrunners engaged in ugly confrontations. During the campaign rallies, both Lungu and Hichilema pulled in huge crowds, which however dismally failed to translate into votes. When Election Day arrived – 20 January – the poll was marred by a very poor turnout, as the heavens opened up with heavy rains, which prevented would-be voters from going to polling stations to cast their vote. The timing of the election – at the peak of the rain season – was unavoidable, as it had to be held within the 90 days prescribed by law following the death of the incumbent president. As a result, the Electoral Commission faced a huge logistical nightmare. Some of the areas were inaccessible by road and election staff and materials had to be airlifted in. Voting in these areas was conducted two days after the official polling day.  

“We have had unprecedented challenges in the conduct of this election,” lamented Ireen Mambilima, chairperson of the Electoral Commission.   

As if that were not enough, the Electoral Commission continued to suffer an enormous deficit of trust from political players who treat the body with suspicion. But given the tight schedule and weather conditions within which the election had to be conducted, some felt the Electoral Commission received less credit than it deserved.  

However, political analysts believe that voter apathy has been on the increase in the past decade.

Zambia has lost two sitting presidents in six years. When Levy Mwanawasa died in office in August 2008, every politician emphasised the need for urgent constitutional reforms to avoid elections being held in the stipulated 90-day period after a president’s death, no matter the timing or other encumbering circumstances, including finances and even weather, as this election partly had to weather. Presented with two opportunities to pass a new constitution that would have looked at other ways of succession, the politicians squandered every opportunity that arose by disagreeing and failing to come to a resolution.  In the run-up to the January election, the politicians were again blaming each other for the dilemma, as the treasury coughed up nearly $60 million to finance a presidential election 18 months away from the scheduled general election, a luxury the country can ill-afford given its economic developmental challenges, including the chronic gap between the haves and the have-nots, which plays a big role in how people vote. The true measure of whether any lesson has been learnt this time will be in how the victorious party will deal with the draft constitution currently before parliament.  

Lungu and PF
The ruling party’s long-running succession dispute following Sata’s death dragged on and provided the country with an overdose of political theatre. Two claimants to the party’s leadership emerged and what followed was a bitterly contested court process pitting Lungu against deputy commerce minister and Sata nephew Miles Sampa. The reality of the party failing to have a presidential candidate was not far off. Not until Lungu scrapped through on a legal technicality did the party breathe a sigh of relief. But by then a lot of damage had been done to the party and some members remained permanently estranged and crossed over to the opposition.

Once they had sorted out their internal politics, their campaign took off on a shaky note, with the rift still preventing the party from working together. Hopes of tapping into government resources were dashed when acting president Guy Scott bluntly told his party to lay their hands off the public purse. With Scott initially boycotting Lungu, fears of a difficult campaign were apparent while Lungu downplayed Scott’s absence. It took some clergymen to bring the factions to a truce, although reports the army did not deny emerged that its senior officials had talked Scott into publicly declaring support for Lungu to prevent a violent backlash from the latter’s supporters.

With a semblance of unity, the PF set out to salvage the remainder of the five-year mandate it won in 2011 and prove that they could still win without the presence of their charismatic late leader – on whom the party’s clout hinged.

Given the fractious nature of the party and the deep divisions that emanated after Sata’s death, analysts predicted that a loss would effectively send the party into oblivion. First, because no one would succeed in holding it together; second, because the record of parties surviving opposition politics after tasting power is particularly dismal in Zambia. Thus, the stakes were high.   But the PF’s campaign also ran into trouble due to messaging. It was an awkward situation where, while they were the party in government, they were promising what they would do if they won – their promises resembled those of the opposition. That earned their candidate – Lungu – the tag ‘Mr Me too’. In 2011 they made mega promises to change the country. But with a three-year experience of running government, their promises were more measured this time. Lungu refused to draw his own path; he publicly announced he did not have a vision of his own, insisting “the vision was already written by Sata.” By repeatedly fronting Sata’s name, Lungu and the party hoped to collect a sympathy vote – which they largely did.

Analysts had predicted that many of the people who voted for Sata in 2011 were unlikely to shift. In effect, voters voted for the party, not necessarily the candidate, although in the end it amounted to the same thing.

Hichilema and UPND
Of the three main parties, the UPND was the most organised and free from internal strife. While the PF and the former ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) were embroiled in squabbles, Hichilema launched his campaign and attracted support from a broad spectrum of prominent figures who endorsed his candidature. He benefitted from the despondency in both PF and MMD. The majority of MMD senior officials abandoned their party and jumped on Hichilema’s wagon, arguing that “he offers the best hope for Zambia” while the fallout in the PF also led some of its senior members to join the UPND campaign. That effectively changed the party’s prospects for the better.

Enjoying a momentum it had not seen in previous elections, the UPND was poised to perform better in areas dominated by the PF and MMD. With a well-oiled campaign machinery dispersed across the country, the UPND was the most travelled party. By trailing Hichilema’s campaign spots rather than seeking to cut into his strongholds, the PF tacitly admitted they were playing catch-up.

When former president Rupiah Banda stepped down from politics in 2012, he stated that it was time for the younger generation to take over the leadership of the country. He cemented that pronouncement by handing over the leadership of the party to a younger leader. But Banda made a surprised and rather brief political comeback in the Sata succession melee when he bulldozed his way into being adopted as the candidate for the former ruling, now opposition Movement For Multi-Party Democracy (MMD), to the vexation of MMD party leader Nevers Mumba. Banda hit the campaign trail, denouncing the PF and its policies. But Mumba fought all the way up to the Supreme Court and won the tussle for the MMD presidential candidacy.

Banda was knocked out of the race, and many thought that was his end. Alas! Before anyone could blink, Banda made a massive U-turn after slating the PF and announced his support for the ruling party, even embarking on a campaign and fundraising trail with Lungu in the politically crucial eastern province. Although Lungu hails from the east, he is an unknown quantity there and even struggles to speak his own language. He therefore desperately needed someone of Banda’s stature to sway the important region. With Banda’s support, Lungu concluded that victory was guaranteed, especially that some analysts had predicted that Eastern and Lusaka provinces would be the key determinants.

Although Banda’s sudden change of heart raised eyebrows, the former president argued simply that he believed in Lungu’s ability to deliver on his promises. Some observers chose to see this partnership as a tribal alliance, a charge both denied.

The future
For the victors there will be no honeymoon as they have plenty of work and have to impress ahead of the September 2016 general election. In view of the rearranged political landscape, it remains to be seen whether or if those who changed allegiance will stick with their pre-election choice or attempt to return to their former camps.

However, will the new Zambian president find carrying on from where Sata left off a surmountable task? Or will he be bringing his own burden to bear?

Written By
Reginald Ntomba

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