Defying the Incumbency Theory: Explaining Sata’s Victory in the 2011 Zambian Elections

Facebook Twitter Email

The literature on elections in Africa reveals that incumbent leaders win 85% of the elections they contest. The victory of the opposition candidate, Michael Sata, in the 2011 Zambian elections, therefore surprised many of the experts. Here Sishuwa Sishuwa, who covered the PF campaign first-hand and was one of the only commentators to predict Sata’s victory, explains how it happened.

“I have not reached State House yet, so why should I retire? I will retire from politics after serving as President in State House. I am coming from grassroots politics to rule.” (Sata, 2001)

On 23 September 2011, Michael Sata, president of the Patriotic Front (PF) and until then one of Africa’s most effective and populist opposition leaders was declared winner of the presidential elections held three days earlier, and became the 5th democratically elected President of Zambia. For Sata, it was the ultimate zenith of a long and carefully nurtured, almost obsessional, desire for the presidency. Given that he had failed on three previous attempts and that he faced an incumbent who waged the most expensive campaign in the history of the country, Sata’s victory represents one of the most striking recent developments on the continent.


Besides accusations of ethnic allegiance to Bemba speaking parts of Zambia – Luapula, Northern and parts of the Copperbelt provinces – Sata also had to deal with the lingering doubts of many voters that he was an unpredictable and destabilizing figure within Zambian politics with questionable democratic credentials. His victory thus represented the precise opposite of what many observers predicted when he left the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy in 2001 in protest against Chiluba’s failure to anoint him as a successor: that he would never recover and rise to political prominence again. As one perceptive Zambian put it, “I thought the last sensible thing Chiluba did, of the few sensible things he did, was to avoid giving us Sata as the next president”. So, what changed? What explains Sata’s rare victory?

Planning for Victory

One of the factors that explain Sata’s victory is his relentless campaign in between elections to keep the PF political fire burning. Soon after the results of the 2008 elections were announced – and as he had done in 2001 and 2006 – Sata commenced his presidential campaign even before the ink that was used to denote those that had voted had dried on the thumbs of the electorate. He first entered into an electoral pact with the third largest political party, the United Party for National Development (UPND) in June 2009. But the pact soon collapsed over the question of who would be the coalition’s presidential candidate.

Undeterred, Sata consolidated his support among the Bemba-speaking and poor urban bases, pushing his message of more jobs, lower taxes and more money in urbanites’ pockets. He promised urbanites what they wanted, while at the same time identifying himself with the rural people and their needs. Raising an array of local grievances wherever he went, ranging from agricultural subsidies and timber exports to decentralisation, road rehabilitation and construction, and the restoration of the power of traditional rulers, Sata skilfully played the role of the ordinary citizen able to represent everyone: the worker, the rural peasant, the poor resident in the slums, the struggling youth on the streets, and the unemployed graduate who has never known a job since his school days.

Thus while other political party leaders were waiting for the official campaign period, for Sata it was business as usual: every day was a campaign. Significantly, his ceaseless mobilization connected him to his supporters and enabled him to maintain the political momentum he built in 2008 right up until the 2011 elections. (It is worth noting that it was on account of these non-stop campaigns that he almost lost his life. In April 2008 he suffered a severe heart attack and only survived after he was flown to South Africa for treatment by Mwanawasa’s government).


More crucially, Sata learnt from history and recognized that the combination of cross-ethnic urban support and rural Bemba support that he mobilized in 2008 would not be enough to take him to State House. He therefore extended his campaign to other parts of the country such as parts of Eastern, Central, North Western and Western provinces, skilfully articulating different local grievances for diverse audiences, while emphasising popular policies such as agricultural subsidies, infrastructure development, and unemployment. Sata also made good use of the Barotseland Agreement controversy, when some constituencies in Western Province resuscitated their campaign for greater autonomy in-line with the special status the region was given under colonial rule. His willingness to embrace these concerns was particularly decisive especially in the urban parts of Western province, after a violent government crackdown on protestors demanding secession on 14 January undermined support for the government. In an election year, the brutal response of the MMD was equal to political suicide.

Sata was also careful to modify his image. In previous elections his willingness to lash out against foreign actors worried many Zambians that he would destabilise the countries international reputation and scare off foreign investment. In contrast to his rabble-rousing rhetoric and anti-foreign ‘infestor’ rhetoric of the mid-2000s, Sata therefore modified his stance on China, and during a talk at Oxford University stressed the importance of maintaining healthy relations with Zambia’s foreign partners. He also pledged to continue with the corruption charges against former president Chiluba, positioning himself as someone ready and willing to take on the good governance mantle of the late President Mwanawasa.

Mood for change

In broadcasting his new message to new parts of the country, Sata skilfully used platforms like community and independent radio stations to project himself as the harbinger of the future rather than the politician of the past. Of decisive influence was the fact that The Post newspaper not only opened its pages to Sata and gave him and the PF unprecedented coverage – raising his political profile owing to the paper’s high moral standing in the eyes of many Zambians – but also sought to expose the corruption and inefficiencies of the Banda government.

The desire for change following twenty years of MMD rule extended beyond The Post. Sata also received unofficial support from the influential Catholic Church: numerous outspoken priests took messages for political change to the Sunday pulpit and the streets. Influential civil society organisations also supported the PF, both covertly and publicly, while prominent individuals like Panji Kaunda not only endorsed Sata but went out of their way to mobilise youthful constituencies using social media like Facebook and the platform of the Zambian People’s Pact to support him. All these influential institutions and individuals conducted independent campaigns but nonetheless shared a common objective: political change.

Paradoxically, Sata’s struggle to reach State House was aided by the incumbent president who was widely viewed as aloof to the plight of many; who had abandoned Mwanawasa’s progressive policies (upon which he was elected); who had broken his 2008 pledge that he would not seek re-election; and, whose sole pre-occupation appeared to be to loot the state coffers. The MMD may have started to come apart at the seams ever since it took power, but Banda’s leadership represented the final nail in the party’s coffin.

Don’t Kubeba

Just as important was the Don’t Kubeba strategy. If Barack Obama won the 2008 USA elections on a platform of “Yes we can”, it might be said that Sata secured the 2011 Zambian elections using the message: “Don’t Kubeba”. Literally interpreted as ‘accept the electoral gifts that the politicians give you, but don’t tell them how you will vote on the actual day’, this double-edged strategy proved to be an effective and economically viable way of dealing with political competitors who could afford to comprehensively outspend the opposition.

By mid-2011, it was evident that given Sata’s high level of support in his strongholds, what he needed to do to win the election was not so much to win the other provinces outright, but to lose well. In other words, it became clear to those with a good sense of Zambia political geography that if Sata avoided losing by a large margin in areas traditionally loyal to the ruling party, his control over urban and Bemba-speaking areas would see him home. And this came to pass. The voting patterns revealed on 20 September 2011 revealed that Sata had significantly eaten into Banda’s lead in MMD strongholds such as Eastern province – where the latter was expected to win by a landslide. Moreover, Sata scooped a greater share of the vote in such swing provinces as Western and Central, which in part reflected his decision to field parliamentary candidates in almost all the constituencies countrywide – a first for the PF.

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to

One of the frequent accusations that Banda faced was that he had not kept the many promises that he made in 2008 when he assumed the presidency from Mwanawasa. But this criticism did not stop him from making another promise on 23 February 2011, when he stated that “I will cry if Sata wins the elections”. On 23 September 2011, Banda wept.

His downfall cannot be attributed to one factor, but to a number of interlinked developments. Most notably, the sense that the MMD and Banda had lost touch with ordinary people, the fear that the corruption of the Chiluba era was returning to Zambian government, the presence of more youthful and unemployed voters on the electoral register, the role of the independent media, Sata’s ability to capture the public mood, and the growing reach of the PF as a result of the party’s geographical expansion all contributed to the transfer of power.

Other noteworthy factors include Sata’s rabble rousing rhetoric against Chinese and other foreign investment – which served him well although he toned it down over the years – the ability of the UPND’s Hichilema to take votes away from Banda in some areas which made it easier for Sata to be competitive outside of his strongholds, high rates of economic growth that had failed to translate into improved living standards for the majority of Zambians, and a general desire for change which reflected widespread fatigue with a ruling party that had been in power for over twenty years.

Many scholars of democratisation and transitions in Africa have suggested that elections are often meaningless because incumbents (almost) always win. Sata and the 2011 Zambian elections defied that interpretation of African politics, pointing to the need to avoid recognize that there are exceptions to every rule. We need to pay particular attention to the nature of campaigning including the political strategies that parties employ to mobilise electoral support, and to local dynamics that are often critical to national outcomes, if we are to understand African political change in the context of democratisation. Now that Sata has reached State House and achieved his long nurtured presidential ambition, the nation expects him to deliver, which means more jobs, lower taxes, and more money in peopleís pockets. If there is one thing that Sata evidently demonstrated during the election campaign it was that he knows his audience. But can he run a country?

2 thoughts on “Defying the Incumbency Theory: Explaining Sata’s Victory in the 2011 Zambian Elections

  1. i want to state that there were two issues that were at play during this period, 1, people were fed up with the slide into corruption by the MMD and 2. there were some people that really thought that sata was the cure to our needs so this led to a massive vote for sata

Join in the debate... let us know what you think!

Discover more from Democracy in Africa

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading