President's stroke stokes crisis

Zambia’s governing Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) party is suffering a growing leadership crisis after President Levy Mwanawasa’s stroke earlier this month.

Mwanawasa (59) remains in a semi-comatose state in the intensive care unit of a military hospital in Paris.

Three weeks into his illness, the leadership vacuum in his own party is heating up, with senior MMD members engaged in a battle over who should lead the party.

Analysts attribute the growing strife to Mwanawasa’s failure to groom an obvious successor.

“It is really sad that Mwanawasa’s sickness came too suddenly, before he could prepare a successor, which is why we are now seeing a lot of infighting within the MMD and general uncertainty in the country. People are unsettled as the big guys in the party are now beginning to reposition themselves,” a political analyst who declined to be identified told the Mail & Guardian.

In the build-up to the bitterly contested 2006 presidential ballot, which Mwanawasa won with 42% against opposition heavyweight Michael Sata’s 29%, the president left the position of vice-president of the MMD unfilled after candidates for the post were seen to be opposed to his presidential bid.

“If the MMD had a vice-president, all these leadership wrangles we are now seeing wouldn’t be there, because the vice-president would be an automatic candidate for a presidential by-election should the president become incapacitated or die in office.

“But as it is there is no automatic or preferred candidate and, therefore, everyone is vying for the top job,” the analyst said.

According to the Zambian Constitution, when an incumbent president dies or becomes incapacitated, elections are held within 90 days.

MMD spokesperson Benny Tetamashimba recently caused an uproar when he called on the governing party soon to find someone to take up Mwanawasa’s position as president of the MMD.

According to Tetamashimba, who is also a deputy minister for local government in Mwanawasa’s cabinet, even if Mwanawasa recovers and resumes his presidential duties, the ruling party will still need a new president to handle party affairs.

“In his state President Mwanawasa should not be burdened with a lot of work. The office of the president is very involving. It will be important for the party to consider thinking seriously about succession, so that he should consider concentrating more on national issues while someone is concentrating on selling the party [for the election in 2011],” Tetamashimba told local media.

Even before Mwanawasa’s stroke, competition for his job in the ruling party was steadily gaining momentum, with a number of top officials, including MMD national secretary Katele Kalumba—who is considered the party’s most influential figure—Health Minister Brian Chituwo, Home Affairs Minister Ronnie Shikapwasha and Defence Minister George Mpombo repeatedly sizing up one another. First lady Maureen Mwanawasa was also reportedly in the running, but she has yet to declare her interest publicly.

Analysts say the battle to find a successor to Mwanawasa could ultimately lead to the party splitting, as there are strong factions which are competing along ethnic lines. The feeling is that the losing camp would refuse to recognise the new leader and opt to form a breakaway party.

The man who ultimately stands to gain from the confusion in the ruling party is Sata, the veteran populist leader of the Patriotic Front. He made Mwanawasa’s health a major political campaign issue and also criticised Chinese investment in the country, while expressing support for Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe during the 2006 election campaign.

Sata won all the parliamentary seats in Lusaka and the Copperbelt province, as well as control over local government in the two areas.

Mwanawasa, a critic of Mugabe, is also the chairperson of the Southern African Development Community. He survived a near-fatal car accident in 1991 which left him with a speech impediment and suffered a mild stroke before the 2006 elections.

He became president of the MMD and Zambia after being hand-picked by his predecessor, Frederick Chiluba, who is facing corruption charges as part of Mwanawasa’s anti-corruption drive.

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