Zambia’s close poll

Zambia’s general election, set for September 28, is expected to be a bitter and closely contested affair. Political analysts believe the country’s fourth multiparty poll since it emerged from 27 years of one-party rule in 1991 will be a hard-fought contest for the incumbent President Levy Mwanawasa of the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD), who is seeking a second and final term of office.

Mwanawasa came to power in 2001 with a wafer-thin 1% margin against 10 other contenders and, although the field has narrowed, the outcome is expected to be close.

The ruling party’s main support is in Central Province, Mwanawasa’s home area, north of the capital, and in the west of the country, where the recommissioning of Kansanshi and Lumwana copper mines has revitalised the North-Western Province’s economy. The ruling MMD is using its economic record as a campaigning lynchpin: the kwacha, the local currency, has appreciated, and mines closed by the South African mining conglomerate, Anglo American, have been reopened. Mwanawasa’s concerted anti-corruption drive and the resuscitation of the economy, have also endeared him to Western donors. However, the incumbent’s failing health has become a major campaign issue. A near-fatal road accident 15 years ago left Mwanawasa with speech incoherencies, and a stroke in April this year exacerbated his health problems.

Only four other contenders are vying for the presidency, with former Cabinet minister Michael Sata seen as the greatest threat to Mwanawasa. Sata’s Patriotic Front (PF) has secured the backing of the labour movement and former president Frederick Chiluba, who has been fighting corruption charges since soon after Mwanawasa assumed office and who now appears to have broken his own laws by endorsing a presidential candidate — according to legislation passed during Chiluba’s 10 years in office, former presidents are forbidden to take a partisan role in national politics.

The PF has promised to slash the tax rates of the 400 000 government workers and railed against ”poor-paying” Chinese and Indian businesses in Zambia. Sata has further raised China’s hackles by vowing to recognise the independence of Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.

Ambassador Li Baodong seemingly broke diplomatic protocol recently by telling the local media that Chinese investors have put ”on hold further investments until the uncertainty surrounding our bilateral relations with Zambia is cleared”.

His remarks were seen as interfering in Sata’s election campaign and caused widespread anger. China is a major foreign investor in Zambia’s Copperbelt region.

The ballot is being held under new electoral laws that prohibit the ruling party from using public money for campaigning and forbid unbalanced coverage by the state-owned media.

Nonetheless, analysts say that Sata’s campaign has been diluted by increased coverage of other opposition political parties in the state media as part of a deliberate ploy to downplay his popularity. Most of his support is concentrated in the capital, Lusaka, and the northern Luapula and Copperbelt provinces.

Another contestant is Hakainde Hichilema, a United Democratic Alliance (UDA) leader and successful businessperson who sits on the boards of more than 20 companies.

He has pledged a new Zambian constitution within 100 days of assuming office and vowed to use his business acumen to transform the economy. He is also wooing voters by offering free education for all up to university level. Education is currently free only up to grade seven.

Hichilema’s UDA, a three-party alliance, is popular in his home region of southern Zambia and also in eastern Zambia, the stronghold of the other two alliance members, the Forum for Democracy and Development, and the United National Independence Party (UNIP). UNIP president Tilyenji Kaunda, whose father, Kenneth Kaunda, was Zambia’s founding president after the country gained independence from Britain in 1964, is an ardent supporter of Hichilema.

Godfrey Miyanda, leader of the Heritage Party, is a born-again Christian and former Cabinet minister, whose central campaign message is the promotion of moral virtue and integrity in public office. His economic policies hinge on what he calls ”the village concept”, through which he hopes to revitalise the agricultural sector by building roads to key food-producing areas.

Former banker and leader of the All People’s Congress Party Ken Ngondo is the least known of the candidates and is struggling to gain a national profile. Ngondo has promised to make education compulsory up to Grade 12.

With the election imminent, no political party appears to be in the ascendancy, although the last three opinion polls have rated Sata and Mwanawasa as the most popular candidates, with Hichilema coming third. Nearly four-million of the

5,5-million eligible voters have registered, roughly double the number who cast their ballots in the disputed 2001 elections. There is expected to be a higher turnout this time, especially in the rural areas, as the elections are being held in the dry season. The previous poll was held in the rainy season.

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