Democratic Backsliding in Zambia

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Sata2This is the second post in new series on examples of democratic backsliding in countries that were previously thought to be consolidating democracies. This week, Nic Cheeseman turns the spotlight on Zambia, where the government’s recent decision to deregister the main opposition party has revealed an authoritarian tendency within Michael Sata’s Patriotic Front government.

It was only last September that Zambia witnessed an inspiring moment of democratic progress.  In the presidential election of 2011, Michael Sata, leader of the Patriotic Front opposition party, defeated the incumbent Rupiah Banda, of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), leading to only the second transfer of power in the country’s history.  With Sata’s victory, Zambia became one of only a handful of African countries to meet Huntington’s famous, if crude, two-turnover test – implying that it was making significant progress towards the consolidation of democracy.  The victory of the PF was all the more promising, because Sata effectively mobilize a cross-ethnic support base by using populist messages and strategies, leading to the widespread expectation that his government would be more responsive to the needs of ordinary people.

Just six months later, and the PF is getting itself into a mess.  Since coming to power, Sata has made a number of sensible decisions, selecting the respected Guy Scott to be one of Africa’s first white Vice Presidents, rebuilding relations with the Chinese government following his numerous criticisms of foreign investors while in opposition, and holding off on the introduction of a mining ‘windfall tax’ for fear that it would scare off foreign investors.

But Sata has also struggled to keep the more radical members of his party on message.  Key figures such as Mines Minister, Wylbur Simuusa, have been quoted as saying that the party would bring back the windfall tax if copper prices hit $10,000 per tonne.  In response, Sata has been forced to reshuffle his cabinet to demote his more unreliable colleagues, but this has given the perception of instability within the Cabinet itself.  The impression that there is chaos at the heart of the government, combined with concerns that some elements of the PF’s economic policy are contradictory, led the Fitch Ratings agency to downgrade Zambia’s long-term foreign and local currency Issuer Default Ratings (IDR) outlook from stable to negative in early March.


Fitch’s decision seems somewhat harsh given the fact that Zambia’s economic outlook appears fairly strong. Net external debt is expected to decrease, growth is expected to reach a high of almost 8% in 2013 and inflation is in single figures. Moreover, foreign direct investment did not decline after the PF came to power, suggesting that businessmen and foreign governments were less frightened by Sata’s rabble rousing ways than many Zambian economists had feared.  But this may well have changed with the unexpected decision of the Chief Registrar of Societies to deregister the MMD on Wed 14 March. The announcement took many by surprise, not least because the MMD had previously governed Zambia for two decades and so its status as a legitimate party appeared to be beyond reproach. Despite this, the Chief Registrar insisted that the MMD had not paid its registration fees since 1993, which put it in breach of the Securities Act, and for which it would be deregistered.

The move was instantly derided by opposition parties as a straight forward power-grab by the government, but the PF’s motivations remain unclear.  Those on the ground suggest that the PF intended to use the deregistration of the MMD as a way of securing a more pliant parliament.  Currently, the PF lacks a parliamentary majority.  If the MMD is deregistered, its MPs will be forced to fight by-elections which the PF, given its new-found access to state resources, would be more likely to win.  However, if this was the PF’s intention, it is strange that the Registrar didn’t force MMD MP’s to leave parliament immediately, but instead argued that they should be allowed to remain as ‘The ruling on this matter is reserved to a later date’.

Whatever the PF intended to do, it probably didn’t intend to reinvigorate the opposition, but this is just what the Registrar’s announcement has done.  MMD first announced that it would appeal the decision in the courts, and later announced that Banda had quit as party leader to allow new leaders the opportunity to rejuvenate the former ruling party.  For the first time in a long time, the MMD has a clear cause that it can use to mobilize the sympathy of voters.  Moreover, according to the Law Association of Zambia, the government is on extremely shaky ground because the Registrar could have simply moved to recover the debt instead of opting for the ‘nuclear option’ of deregistering the opposition.

The MMD’s initial appeal was successful. In a ruling handed down on Friday 16 March, Lusaka High Court Judge Jane Kabuka stayed the party’s deregistration and gave it leave to apply for judicial review. Everything now hinges on the decision of the High Court.  If, as many predict, the PF sees sense and allows the Court to strike down the Registrar’s actions, the controversy could pass relatively quickly – although it is still likely to leave a black mark against the PF government in the minds of many donors and foreign investors. However, if the PF ignores the pleas of civil society and opposition groups and uses its ability to manipulate the judiciary to push the MMD out of existence, Zambia’s hard won democratic gains could go up in flames.

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10 thoughts on “Democratic Backsliding in Zambia

  1. A fascinating discussion is worth comment. I do believe thqt you should write more about this topic, it may not be a taboo subject but usually people do not talk
    about such issues. To the next! All the best!!

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