An executive death threat

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Michaela Collord focuses in on Zambia, where President Edgar Lungu recently threatened a prominent newspaper editor. She argues that this move on serves to reveal the deep tensions at the heart of Lungu’s factional and flailing party. This blog was first posted on Presidential Power.

Earlier this month, President Edgar Lungu, in a very unpresidential move, issued what amounted to a death threat targeting the editor of The Post newspaper, Fred M’membe. Lungu’s comments bring into focus the increasingly bitter factionalism within Zambia’s ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF), as well as that party’s dimming electoral prospects ahead of next year’s polls.

Lungu became president last January in a by-election after the death of his predecessor and the PF party founder Michael Sata. His victory followed a divisive nomination battle within the PF itself, which produced two opposing camps, one led by Lungu and a second aligned with then acting President Guy Scott’s preferred nominee. The PF split was only exacerbated after the former President Rupiah Banda (then of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy or MMD) threw his weight behind Lungu. Banda’s influence—bolstered by his considerable financial support of Lungu’s campaign—is credited with compelling Lungu to adopt a more ‘pro-business’ policy stance. This shift in focus—including promises to reverse a prior PF government decision increasing royalty taxes in the mining sector—further alienated many within the ruling party who were originally opposed to Lungu’s candidacy while achieving little in terms of an improved investment climate.

M’membe of The Post was among the notable erstwhile PF supporters now disillusioned with Lungu’s leadership. The prominent editor had previously used his paper to champion the government of Michael Sata. Now the same paper has become a vehicle to critique the current President while propping up the political campaigns of former PF Secretary General and founder of the new opposition Rainbow Party, Wynter Kabimba. Kabimba fell out with Sata before his death and subsequently challenged Lungu’s leadership from the left. While Kabimba formally exited the PF, many of those who belonged to the same left-leaning faction—once known as the Cartel—remain.

The ferocity of Lungu’s recent outburst against M’membe is indicative of tensions stemming both from his fragile position within the PF and from his party’s overall declining popularity. After finding himself indebted to a number of his own Cabinet ministers post election, Lungu is now trying to consolidate his hold over the party. This effort involves simultaneously accommodating newcomers from the MMD brought over as a result of Banda’s support. In this vein, The PF Chairperson for Elections indicated last month that the party would ‘rebrand’ ahead of the 2016 polls and that, crucially, 70% of sitting PF MPs would not be re-selected to run as parliamentary candidates. If the party goes ahead with that plan, those MPs who are deselected will likely run as independents or with other parties, which will make it still harder for the PF to win.

These intra-party woes are not the only challenge, however. Zambia’s foundering economy, hit hard by the fall in copper prices, is eroding the PF’s popular support. These losses are all the more worrying given Lungu’s nail-bitingly thin, 30,000-vote election victory over the lead opposition candidate, Hakainde Hichelema of the United Party for National Development (UPND). Lungu’s alliance with Banda also is not as secure as it could be. Banda reportedly threatened to back Hichilema after Lungu refused to see him following an impromptu visit to State House. This is not an idle threat: Banda has supported Hichilema’s UPND before. As was the case with Banda’s most recent turn to the PF, which came after he failed to secure his position as MMD presidential flag-bearer, his erstwhile support for the UPND was a means of snubbing rival factions within his own party.

Extrapolating from Lungu’s attack on M’membe, the current state of play in Zambia is that a president who appears to be unsure of him own leadership is struggling to unite his own party against the backdrop of prolonged economic decline. Elite level splits within parties are producing a variable geometry of party alignment and re-alignment, driven forward by personal antagonism and reinforced through ideological differences. Whatever the outcome in next year’s elections, the stakes are high. Given that previous ruling parties have receded into oblivion after losing in the polls, the very survival of the PF as a viable party is in question.

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