Following the death of Zambia’s fifth president after independence, Michael Chilufya Sata, in October last year, the ruling party’s Edgar Lungu was sworn in as the new president last month after a tightly contested presidential by-election.
Lungu, who was chosen as the presidential candidate of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) after the succession battle divided the party into four camps, received 48,3% of the overall vote. He will serve out the remainder of the late president Sata’s term until 2016, when the next tripartite general elections are set to take place. Lungu will serve out the remainder of the late president Sata’s term until 2016. The United Party for National Development (UPND), formerly the third place opposition from the 2011 elections, came in a close second during the by-election with 46,7 % of the votes, narrowly losing the presidential race.
This narrow miss has fed speculation that party leader leader Hakainde Hichilema, who maintains that the vote was rigged, could easily lead the UPND to victory next year. The Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), the second of Zambia’s two largest opposition parties, suffered the biggest decline with a dismal 0,87% of the vote. This was largely due to a loss of public credibility and serious divisions over whom to elect as the party presidential candidate: former president Rupiah Banda, or party president Nevers Mumba.
The discord became so ominous that some members publically campaigned for either a PF or UPND presidency, with Banda later controversially endorsing Lungu’s election. This was arguably an important factor in the PF’s win in the Eastern Province – traditionally an MMD stronghold. In hindsight, naming a joint candidate to challenge Lungu could have had a different result, also strengthening the collective opposition base in general. Furthermore, the results of the remaining eight opposition parties that contested are disproportionately insignificant to those of the PF and the UPND. It is also worth highlighting that the voter turnout was only 32,36%.
The foregoing developments are significant and should be observed in the context of Zambia’s upcoming general election in 2016 in five important ways. First is that the nominations of presidential candidates resulted in severe fragmentations within the various parties, most conspicuously within the ruling party. Many within the PF are paying the price of the party’s complex succession politics, and dissidents are alleging that political purging is taking place as the new cabinet is being constituted. Conversely, those who supported Lungu are likely to reap the rewards.
Nominations of presidential candidates resulted in severe fragmentations within various parties
The most notable cases of how loyalties are playing out include Guy Scott being fired as vice president and relegated to an ordinary PF member of Parliament (MP). Scott, who challenged Lungu’s right to be acting vice president, emerged as the latter’s nemesis during the PF succession process. Scott was replaced by Inonge Wina, who became the first woman to be appointed vice president in Zambia’s history. Wina, who is the PF’s national chairperson, supported Lungu during the controversial PF Kabwe convention to nominate a party presidential candidate, which Scott and his supporters subsequently challenged in court.
Notably Davies Mwila, Harry Kalaba and Ngosa Simbyakula, who have respectively been appointed as the new ministers of home affairs, foreign affairs and justice, all belonged to the ‘Lungu camp’ during the succession battle.
The recent firing of Attorney-General Musa Mwenye is also noteworthy as he directed that Lungu, then acting president after Sata’s passing, hand over power to Scott or face treason charges.
PF party members who supported candidates from other parties are being expelled, such as Southern Province Minister Daniel Munkombwe, who endorsed Hichilema. Cohesion and unity within the party are thus under threat, and the possibility of splinter formations from the disaffected cannot be ruled out. Party members who supported candidates from other parties are being expelled
The second reason why current developments are so significant for next year’s elections is the dwindling popularity of the PF – if the 1,6% margin between Lungu and Hichilema is anything to go by. This is partly the repercussion of the PF’s under-performance while led by Sata. The uncomfortable truth is that under the late president, the PF maintained a weak performing governance record, with a lack of poverty reduction a glaring failure. Furthermore, the rule of law had been undermined in a number of ways, with several cases of confrontation between the executive and the judiciary; and lastly, the PF under Sata saw the weakening the country’s democratic agenda.
Significant segments of the Zambian population want economic and political reform, as expressed in the increasing number of political demonstrations in the country from the onset of the PF administration in 2011. In 2014 there were 73 reported protests events across the country, compared to only eight recorded in 2010. Protest events have since risen mostly in the Copperbelt and Lusaka, which are PF strongholds.
The third observation concerns shifts in the country’s opposition politics, as the UPND’s popularity received a significant boost in comparison to the MMD. But there are also divisions within the UPND, including those over Hichilema’s eligibility to stand for re-election in 2016, as he has already served two terms in the party. The UPND constitution does not have a provision on term limits, and the issue is likely to be contentious for the party towards the 2016 polls.
In the same vein, party defections from both the UPND and, to a larger extent, the MMD are likely due to the dismal performance of the latter, as well as political opportunism generally. Already Dawson Kafwaya, a UPND MP, was appointed North Western Province minister in Lungu’s new cabinet. Appointing opposition MPs in the PF government threatens opposition numbers in the legislature, since those who are appointed are often expelled by their parties or defect to the PF altogether. There is therefore a possibility that Lungu will continue to appoint opposition parliamentarians in order to weaken the opposition numbers in Parliament.
This is an old tactic that was also used by the late Sata to give the ruling party a two-thirds majority in Parliament – which the PF currently does not have – to wield power in the national assembly. For instance, with a two-thirds majority in Parliament, the PF can amend the constitution to its liking. Continued internal conflict and defections will ultimately destabilise the opposition and how they organise for the 2016 polls.
The fourth development concerns the resurgence of tribal politics. Tribal politics emerged in the presidential race itself, which revived the political contest between the Bemba, perceived historically as the most culturally and politically assertive group in Zambia, against the Tonga, Ngonis and the Lozis. Lungu, although a Nsenga from Eastern Province, enjoys Bemba support since he leads what is perceived to be a Bemba party, while Hichilema is Tonga.
According to some political observers in Zambia, the country has emerged divided after the presidential election because votes were split along ethnic lines, with several tribes feeling left out. There have been calls from the opposition and civic organisations for Lungu to focus on building cohesion and unity in the country.
Last is a reflection on the low voter turnout. Indeed, political engagement is multi-dimensional, and the by-election carried less weight than a general tripartite election covering presidential, national assembly and local government polls. Arguably, turnout next year would be higher. However, it can be indicative of a wider malaise – namely voter apathy and increasing disengagement of Zambians from formal politics. On the one hand it may signal a need to re-organise popular politics in the country and on the other, serve as a catalyst for government to be more responsive in the near term.
This article was first published by the Institute for Security Studies, and is republished here with their permission.