Personality trumps policy in Zambia’s election battles

It was just after 6.30am when the car pulled up at the Long­acres roundabout in a leafy part of Lusaka, close to the main drag of embassies known as United Nations Avenue. Within minutes the area turned blue as a small but energetic group fixed posters and banners to every surface they could find.

Muhabi Lungu arrived shortly afterwards, in an SUV plastered with the regalia of the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). He was dressed from head to toe in blue, and on the back of his garish shirt was the beaming face of Zambian President Rupiah Banda.

“Hello, good morning, how are you? Muhabi Lungu is my name and I’m asking for your vote and I’ll work for you,” he chirped at drivers.

While some took his leaflet, others held up their forearm and fist, a symbol of the main opposition party, the Patriotic Front (PF), whose veteran white candidate Guy Scott holds the constituency Lungu is contesting.

Zambia goes to the polls on September 20 and the stakes are higher than ever. The Mail & Guardian travelled to Lusaka to taste the election fever and speak to ordinary Zambians about what they want from their government.


This is the second time Lungu, who, in order to run his campaign resigned from his job as director of the Zambian Development Agency, is standing for Lusaka Central, having run as an independent in 2006.

A former member of the United National Independence Party (Unip) and one-time adviser to Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, Lungu claims he was asked personally by PF leader Michael Sata to represent the main opposition party, but chose to go with the MMD.

His kaleidoscopic political background is not unusual in Zambia, where politicians seem to switch sides regularly. The ruling party, which has governed Zambia since the advent of multiparty politics in 1991, has its own shade of chameleon, having been created by Unip defectors; Sata reportedly formed the PF because he was not chosen as the MMD’s presidential candidate in 2001.

Ten years after his defection, Sata has built up a big following. He has helped increase his party’s vote share in each poll since then, losing to Banda by just 35 000 votes in the 2008 presidential by-election.

This will be Sata’s fourth time contesting the presidency. Like Banda, he is in his mid-70s, and most believe it will be both men’s last attempt, making the stakes even higher for the September 20 general elections.

Losing popularity
There is talk that there has been a falling-out between Sata and Hakainde Hichilema, the leader of the third-largest party, the United Party for National Development, with whom the PF was going to form a coalition. And there are 10 presidential candidates in total, which will split the non-MMD vote and could allow Banda to sneak a win.

There have also been claims that the PF, despite being a clear favourite six months ago, is now losing popularity because it cannot compete with the cash-rich MMD and its slick campaign and freebies.

But senior PF MP Given Lubinda, hoping to win his third term in Lusaka’s mostly working-class Kabwata ward, said he was confident Sata would make it to the State House this time round. He said people were not impressed by freebies and it did not matter that the PF had less money to spend on its campaign.

“You just have to look at the performance of the party over the last elections,” he said. “In 2001 the PF only had one member of Parliament and in 2006 that grew to 43. [The party currently has 42 seats.] We do not believe Mr Sata lost the 2008 election; we believe that the announcement of the results was not correct.”

In the poor urban neighbourhoods we visited in Lusaka there was an overwhelming feeling that people, particularly unemployed young people and, importantly, first-time voters, wanted change. The complaint that Zambia’s economic boom has not trickled down to the masses was a popular refrain, as was disappointment over what people said was the MMD’s failure to tackle endemic corruption and create jobs.

But in rural areas, where the majority of Zambians live, the MMD reportedly retains a good support base that is financially better off, thanks to this year’s bumper maize crop, which the government claims was the result of its programme of subsidised farming inputs.

Neo Simutanyi, director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Lusaka-based leftist think-tank, told the Mail & Guardian that, although the PF could count on the urban poor, the MMD would take the wealthier city dwellers and new middle classes.

“I think there are a lot of people who are worried what a vote for the PF might mean for them financially,” he said. “The middle classes, I think, are more suspicious of change than anyone. They are the ones who want to maintain the status quo, against the younger, less well-off people who are calling for change.”

Tackling issues
In an interview Lungu made much of the fact that the MMD had created a middle class from nothing and robustly defended his new party’s record on tackling inequality.

“Yes, there is poverty in this country,” he said. “But the MMD have been able to deal with it quite significantly and sequentially over the last few years. The incidence of poverty in the 1980s was as high as 82%, and last year it was 64%, so we have been able to take 20% off the poverty scale, thanks to the policies of the MMD.”

Pointing his finger to underline his main points Lungu sang the praises of the MMD at an almost evangelical pitch, strongly refuting claims that the country had undersold its mining assets to overseas investors and accusing opposition parties of making things up to win votes.

This being politics as usual, many allegations are being thrown about, some very personal.

In the first days of the campaign, in early August, the PF filed court papers challenging Banda’s legitimacy as president, claiming his father was born in Malawi. The party has also accused the Electoral Commission of Zambia of corruption in the procurement of ballot papers that were printed in South Africa.

The High Court rejected the candidacy case on a technicality (that Banda was not cited by name in the application), but the PF plans to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the electoral commission allegations, which are being investigated by the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission, rumble on, taking centre stage in the PF’s campaign.
Simutanyi lamented the lack of policy debate on the campaign trail.

“Zambian parties do not follow ideology,” he said. “They agree on the same policies largely; they mostly support a market-based economy and they largely agree on the structure of government. What defines them is their leadership. They tend to concentrate more on personalities and personal differences than on policies.”

Meanwhile, the government-controlled national television station ZNBC and its two daily newspapers, The Times and The Daily Mail, are fiercely pro-MMD, documenting every candidate who defects from any opposition party (and discrediting those who leave the MMD) and showing every second of every Banda rally and speech. The privately owned Post newspaper seems to be against anything to do with the government and for everything to do with Sata, whose picture appears on its front page as often as Banda’s does in the state-owned publications.

Zambian media
Criticism of the partisan nature of the Zambian media is not new and, despite the publication of a new electoral code of conduct and various election media training programmes by organisations such as the BBC World Service Trust, the problem persists.

In August a delegation from the United States-based National Democracy Institute, led by former Botswana president Ketumile Masire, noted what it said were “important shortcomings in the electoral environment that cause serious concern”. Among the issues, it said, were the “blatant pro-government bias in the public media, as well as bias and inaccurate reporting in all major media”. It was also concerned about political intimidation and “the potential for electoral related violence”.

Zambia’s transition from British colony to independent state was peaceful and the country has had little history of political violence, apart from riots in 1990/1991 at the time of the transition to multiparty democracy and the end of Kaunda’s 27-year rule.

Although election results have always been relatively close, apart from isolated incidents, there has been none of the physical backlash seen after elections elsewhere on the continent.

But this year might be the exception. There has already been a clutch of campaign-related fights, with some reports of injuries. They have been described in some instances as “riots”, thanks to the hyperbole of the local media. One blogger even referred to a jaw being broken in scenes reminiscent of “Benghazi in Tunisia [sic]”.

Although still few in number, the outbursts, mostly among young men, did cause the electoral commission to pull all the parties together last week to sign a strongly worded declaration calling for calm among their members and urging the media to report electoral matters accurately and responsibly.

The MMD has openly criticised the PF for trying to incite violence and has adopted as its slogan “Prosperity, stability and security”.

Several Western diplomats told the M&G that they felt the MMD was using peace to discourage people from voting for an opposition party in case it led to disruption or conflict.
Lubinda put it more bluntly: “What stability is it when 70% of your population don’t have stable lives or know where they will get their next meal?”

Outside the PF’s office in Lusaka, which looks like little more than a run-down house, a group of men gathered, taking turns to test out the volume of a speaker system attached to the top of a brightly painted green campaign van.

One of them, 41-year-old unemployed Stanley Chiumia, told me the PF would definitely win.

“We have a 100% chance of winning,” he said, adding that, if the PF didn’t win it would be because the vote was rigged. “There will be stones thrown,” he said. “People have had enough.”

His aggression was palpable, but, as we pulled away our taxi driver laughed it off. “People in Zambia don’t fight over politics,” he said. “They take football more seriously.”

Who’s in the running for State House
Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD)
Presidential candidate: Rupiah Banda (incumbent president), also known as “RB”.

Banda (74) was a surprise choice to lead the ruling party following the death of former president Levy Mwanawasa in 2008. A father of eight, Banda, who began his political career in the diplomatic service, had already retired once from politics following the death of his first wife in 2002. But he was brought back as vice-president in 2006 and then suddenly found himself in State House two years later. Having only served three years as president after a very close by-election result, Banda is keen to win again more convincingly and serve a full term in office.

Observers say he lacks the personality of other Zambian statesmen and is more a product of a well-oiled party machine than of individual brilliance. He has several private business and agricultural interests.

Number of seats in Parliament: Seventy-three
Key slogan: “Prosperity, stability and security”
Campaign themes and policies: Claiming credit for Zambia’s economic boom and bumper harvests, the MMD is urging voters to stick with what they know and have benefited from. Their posters and literature boast of how many schools and hospitals they have built and how many kilometres of road they have tarred. They play on the fact that Zambia is a stable country, hinting that if any other political party wins it might lead to instability. Core voters: Wealthy and middle classes; rural peasants benefiting from recent bumper harvests.

Patriotic Front (PF)
Presidential candidate: Michael Sata
Number of seats in Parliament: 42
Key slogans: “Putting money in your pockets”; “Don’t Kubeka” (literally, “Don’t tell” — encouraging people to accept campaign freebies from the ruling party but not to pledge their vote in exchange); “Yes, a better Zambia for all!”

Campaign themes and policies: The PF advocates pro-poor policies to boost employment and living conditions and to improve healthcare and education. It is critical of the MMD’s management of the economy, despite its growth, and say only a few Zambians have felt the benefit. It is keen to return to the process of creating a new constitution, which was abandoned last year at great cost, and want to tighten up regulations to stop corruption.

Core voters: Urban and peri-urban poor, youth and first-time voters; the unemployed.

Sata (74) was previously chief executive of the MMD but left the party in 2001 after Mwanawasa was appointed the party’s presidential candidate. After Sata defected he set up the PF. A strong orator with an almost cult following among young, urban Zambians, Sata — who makes much of his humble roots — likes to market himself as a “man of the people” or “the people’s president”.

He has been critical of Chinese investment, although his campaign team says he is not anti-Chinese.

United Party for National Development (UPND)
Presidential candidate: Hakainde Hichilema (also known as “HH”).
At 43, Hichilema is the youngest candidate in the running for State House and he is hoping this will appeal to younger voters. This is the third time he is standing as a presidential candidate. With a background in business and commercial farming, Hichilema was chief executive of Grant Thornton Zambia between 1998 and 2006. He has held many directorships.

Number of seats in Parliament: Twenty-four
Key slogan: “A vote for HH is a vote for a prosperous Zambia”
Campaign themes and policies: HH says he wants to “focus on a new vision for Zambia and promote love in the country”. His “change campaign” aims to offer a new alternative to the MMD.

He has pledged to boost employment, reduce income taxes, make food “affordable to all”, ensure farming inputs such as seeds and fertiliser are cheap, improve education and give all families access to “quality healthcare”.

Core voters: Young Zambians disillusioned by the ruling party but not convinced by the PF.

Other presidential candidates

  • Elias Chipimo – The National Restoration Party (Narep)
  • Tilyenji Kaunda – United National Independence Party (Unip)
  • Ng’andu Magande – National Movement for Progress (NMP)
  • Charles Milupi – Alliance for Development and Democracy (ADD)
  • Godfrey Miyanda – Heritage Party (HP)
  • Frederick Mutesa – Zambia for Empowerment and Development (ZED)
  • Edith Nawakwi – Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD)

This is the second article in a series on Zambia in the run-up to the elections. Travel and accommodation expenses for a Mail & Guardian reporter and photographer were supported by a grant from the Washington DC-based non-governmental organisation Freedom House.

With a booming economy, a vibrant political scene and corruption on the boil, we examine Zambia in the run-up to their national elections in September. For news and multimedia on the elections click here.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that this was the first time Hichilema was running, instead of the third. We apologise for the error.

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