ZAMBIA WATCH: Ruling party on the roll as ex-president knocked out of race; whispers of Mugabe's hand

Patriotic Front gets a foot up as rivals struggle for traction following a week full of drama.

AFTER weeks of infighting, Zambia’s ruling Patriotic Front party sought to close ranks at the weekend, seemingly gaining new momentum as a presidential election race full of unexpected twists and turns delivered the latest instalment in political intrigue.

There has been little love lost between acting president Guy Scott and party leader Edgar Lungu following the death of president Michael Sata in late October. Their testy relationship featured attempts to dislodge each other from their perches, but they were on Saturday shaking hands on a “reconciliation” deal that sought to plug damaging party leaks.

Lungu’s camp has eagerly sold the deal brokered on Friday night as having secured Scott’s backing, with a statement noting that Africa’s first white president in 20 years would now actively campaign for him, just days after Scott had asked a court to block Lungu’s nomination.

The minister had accused Scott of hating him “for one reason to another,” and of wanting the party “to die”. 

Scott, who is charged with midwifing the election, was however Saturday part of the team that accompanied Lungu to present his nomination papers, a further show of unity that convinced few but which will have opposition challengers scrambling to restrategise ahead of the January 20 poll. 

Sampa broods

Conspicuously absent was Sampa, the deputy minister who had challenged Lungu’s putative candidacy, but a party statement said he had attended the Friday talks. 

Sampa took his grievance to court, which last week technically knocked him out by ruling that his case would be heard this week, when the electoral commission would have already received party candidate nominations.

The immediate effect of the PF ceasefire will be its renewed focus on the other challengers, of which seemingly only two pose a serious threat, and which had banked on continued ruling party disarray to strengthen their own bids. (Read: Out of Zambia’s chaos, an emerging order, and its not what you think)

Opposition woes

Instead it was the largest opposition party, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), which will be seeking to douse internal flames as a court decision knocked out ex-president Rupiah Banda as its candidate.

Banda is seen to have engineered a palace coup of sorts, which saw party president Nevers Mumba suspended, paving way for his candidacy. But a court ruling reinstated Mumba as the party’s presidential candidate, with the acceptance of his nomination papers by the electoral commission the final nail on Banda’s coffin. 

Banda, 77, already faced the challenge of a generational gap, in addition to Zambians remaining divided over his legacy during his two-year stint in charge. Mumba will however struggle for name recognition.

The other perceived frontrunner the United Party for National Development (UPND), has on its ticket the suave Hakainde Hichilema, who has nevertheless come up empty in three previous stabs at the presidency.

Hichilema is battling to shake off the tag of a regional party—which could feasibly be applied to the other two parties but which has seemed to stick more for the UPND—while among the campaign missiles directed at him has been claims that he is funded by foreign powers. He however has managed to rope in support from the MMD, and could benefit most from its last minute-drama, and those disgruntled by PF’s rule so far.

Scott changes tack

But the focus will have shifted to the weekend goings on after Scott’s surprise change of direction. He had come across as committed to constitutionalism and the rule of law, earning positive reviews from civil society.

Following unproven claims that he was receptive to the Sampa bid, the feeling is that he capitulated after a review of how his interests were best served.

Some Zambian publications, many of which firmly nail their political colours to their mast, claimed that he had been pressured by army chiefs into at least standing off criticism of the Lungu bid. 

Meeting with Mugabe

Last week Lungu, who is both defence and justice minister, travelled to Zimbabwe where he met president Robert Mugabe, a meeting from which much has been read, but little light shed.

Scott last week also came out fighting after 14 of 17 cabinet ministers met under his nose and called for his resignation. He termed the meeting a “serious act of treason”.  

The pair’s reconciliation will feasibly tilt the field toward the PF’s favour, following speculation that state resources could be marshalled in its campaign.

Few changes of policy are expected following the election, which is seen as essentially serving to position the parties for 2016, when a full five-year term will be on offer.

The outcome will however be closely watched by investors, especially miners, with exports forming the bulk of Zambia’s export revenues. 

On January 1, a new royalty policy goes into effect that while eliminating corporate income tax, increases the gross royalty rate from 6% to 20%. The new policy has popular support but miners say it will hurt them disproportionately, as international prices remain depressed. 

Mining major Barrick Gold in a statement has already indicated it would close its Lumwana copper mine, which supports 4,000 jobs, citing rising costs, if there is no reversal of the PF-sponsored policy.

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