Out of Zambia's chaos, an emerging order, and its not what you think

Two horses, a dark horse, former horses, they are all in the mix ahead of an election next month.

IT has been a messy scrap, but Zambia’s presidential contender line-up is finally taking some shape, ahead of a stop-gap election set for next month.

And true to form—the country does not do drama-free politics— Zambians are none the wiser about who will be elected to complete the term to 2016 of Michael Sata, who died in late October.

Up to ten aspirants will present their nomination papers to the election manager in coming days, but the focus has narrowed to a leading pack of three.

The former president’s ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF), has been in state of near disarray following infighting over who will bag its ticket in the January 20, 2015 election, leaving it looking vulnerable to the opposition.

Defence minister Edgar Lungu has however sought to project the image of the PF frontrunner, but he has to contend with a court case in which a deputy minister, Miles Sampa, has challenged his putative candidacy. The two held competing party congresses that backed their respective candidacies, further adding to a sense of confusion.

Drama everywhere

The opposition in the African nation would ordinarily have seized on the fissures in the ruling party, if it were itself not embroiled in its own internal drama.

Former ruling party the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) last month saw its decision making organ suspend its president, Nevers Mumba, as he sought to be his party’s flagbearer on account of his position as party leader.

This paved way for ex-president Rupiah Banda to become the MMD candidate, a position cemented after a court last week extinguished Mumba’s legal challenge to his suspension. He says he will appeal, but the die looks cast.

The other main candidate, the United Party for National Development (UPND), has so far avoided the political intrigues that have hit its rivals, with Hakainde Hichilema, its deep-pocketed leader, increasingly looking a dark horse.

Indeed he bolted out of the stables with his campaigns, and held well-attended rallies that seem to have convinced his camp that victory is a possibility, following three previous unsuccessful stabs.

His party has however struggled to shake off the tag of a regional outfit, a misnomer of sorts given Zambia’s vote often fragments according to provincial regions, in keeping with trends in Africa where the vote is rarely ideological or issue-driven. He can however count on the backing of Banda’s son Andrew, and former First Lady Maureen Mwanawasa, whose husband Levy remains popular in the country.

To further spice things up, Hichilema’s proposed alliance with the MMD collapsed, due to what Banda claimed was the intractable insistence by the left-leaning UPND that it fields the presidential candidate. A similar pact with the PF in 2011 also fell through, exposing its soft alliance-forming underbelly.

A socialist outfit steps forward

But despite the daily intrigue from all quarters, the focus has so far been on the socialism-professing PF, which broke away from the MMD in 2001. Despite its internal troubles, it looks a horse’s nose ahead, in part due to an aura of incumbency.

But apart from Banda, who will not be eligible in 2016, next month’s election will be one that the contenders will likely view as a stepping stone to that election, informing Lungu’s controversial remarks on a local radio station that “not a lot can be done in one and a half years”. 

Lungu, who is also Justice minister, has however struggled to articulate his own vision, batting in favour of solidifying Sata’s legacy, and providing brickbats to opponents given a recent battering of Zambia’s economic indicators. Hichilema is more articulate in this area, and says his main focus would be strengthening the economy. His presidency would be a hit with western investors as he has promised a better foreign investment climate.

Banda argues that he is best placed to lead the transition, while playing up his experience when he was president for three years following the 2008 death of Levy Mwanawasa. His much younger opponents have seized on governance challenges in his time and his age-77—to call for a generation change.

Poverty persists

On the balance it looks like an open race, but whoever wins will come face to face with economic challenges that have seen the country’s deficit bloat as outlined in a government budget in October, inflation rise, and wage freezes imposed on employment and salaries in the civil sector. 

Delayed rains have also hurt agriculture, the main employer, adding to the threat to the country’s high growth rates, according to Moody’s. The ratings agency also noted that the country’s fiscal strength remained strong.

Mining revenues—especially from the mainstay copper— to the government continue to disappoint, contributing to the deficit and remaining at risk to global price volatility and tax changes, while inequality in the country of 14.5 million continues to be a challenge.

Over half of Zambians live below the poverty line, despite the country having gotten off to a strong start at independence.  

On the back of this it would be ambitious that the victorious candidate would make a significant dent solving these litany of challenges, but what they do in the interim will dictate if they get a bigger bite of the cherry come 2016.

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