Zambia: Lessons from the local government by-elections

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Sishuwa Sishuwa gives a candid analysis of the just ended local government by-elections in Zambia, arguing that the by-elections show the reluctance of Zambia’s main political parties to ascribe loss of electoral contests to the possible ineffectiveness of their political strategies.


On 24 April 2018, voters in 16 different wards spread across the country went to the polls to choose new representatives following a series of vacancies occasioned by the death or resignation of incumbent councillors. The affected wards were Luapula and Kansuswa on the Copperbelt, Chiweza and Chiwuyu in Eastern Province, Ntumbachushi and Munwa in Luapula Province, Nampundwe in Lusaka, Mikunku, Kakoma and Kalebe in Muchinga Province, Kanongo, Mushima, Mudyanyama and Kalilele in Northwestern Province, Mwanza East in Southern Province and Lealui Lower in Western Province. As well as winning Lealui Lower and Kalilele, the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) scooped all the seats in Eastern, Copperbelt, Muchinga, Luapula, and Lusaka provinces while the main opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) secured victories in the remaining four in Northwestern, Southern and Western provinces.

The ruling party has since seized upon this favourable outcome as evidence that Zambians are happy with its performance in government. PF Secretary General Davies Mwila claimed that winning 12 of the 16 local government by-elections is also a sign that Zambians have great confidence in the leadership of President Edgar Lungu. The UPND, through its Deputy Secretary General Patrick Mucheleka, has countered by claiming that the results should be understood as a consequence of both the thuggish behaviour of PF cadres who intimidated opposition activists and the ruling party’s capacity to buy off voters.

Neither of these two competing perspectives tells us the full story. Broadly speaking, the results of the recent local government by-elections tell us two things.

First, with two exceptions, they all conform to existing voting patterns. Barring its success in Lealui Lower and Kalilele wards, the PF won all the seats that it was expected to, located in constituencies where it has enjoyed strong support for well over a decade. Efforts by the party’s leadership to overanalyse or draw larger conclusions from the results of the recent ward elections should therefore be treated with caution. Incumbency advantage matters a lot in these kind of electoral contests – those used to fill elected offices that have become vacant between general elections – and party performance is hardly an indicator of the prevailing national public mood. Ahead of the 2011 election, for instance, the then governing Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) won nearly all the local-government and parliamentary by-elections held between 2006 and 2011. When a general election was called, however, the MMD lost, thanks to an unpopular presidential candidate, internecine factionalism and a more effective opposition. As well as celebrating the unexpected victories in Lealui and Kalilele, Mwila would have done well to limit his interpretation of the results to reminding the UPND that, on the evidence of the latest results, the opposition party’s recent claims of political ascendance in traditional PF constituencies such as Eastern, Lusaka, Luapula, Muchinga and Copperbelt provinces are unfounded.

Similarly, the UPND secured victories in four of the six wards where anything other than a win for them would have come as a surprise. The opposition party’s loss in PF strongholds was equally expected. Even if the elections were completely free of bribery, violence and harassment, it would have been astonishing if the majority of voters in Eastern, Lusaka, Luapula, Muchinga and Copperbelt provinces did not support the ruling party. In addition to acknowledging that his party made costly mistakes, such as selecting candidates who did not command the support of the grassroots in Lealui and Kalilele wards, Mucheleka would have done well to congratulate the PF on their effective electoral strategy and decent performance. The argument that the violence that characterised the campaigns was responsible for the UPND’s dismal showing in PF strongholds is weakened by the opposition party’s relatively poor performance even in Western and Northwestern provinces, two of its traditional constituencies where no reports of violence were recorded. Besides, if we apply the same logic or principle, we may then explain the PF’s loss of the election in Southern Province as a result of the thuggish behaviour of UPND cadres who also engaged in acts of violence against PF supporters.

The truth is that the competing perspectives of the two main political parties in relation to the outcome of the recent local government by-elections demonstrate that the Zambian society is presently so polarised politically that many people would rather cling on to a perspective that supports their preferred position even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. This is a damaging attitude that encourages obstinate conventionality, the security of prejudice and the relentless focus on short-term and ephemeral issues at the expense of paying attention to the larger and more serious concerns confronting Zambia. We will do well to embrace the unfamiliar, to learn to eschew haste in passing judgement, to seek answers to why and responses to why not, to consider accepting some things, not contesting all, and to check our obsession with searching for new stories or narratives that conform to our pre-existing or entrenched biases.

Second, the results of the recent local government by-elections reinforce the enduring reluctance of Zambia’s main political parties to ascribe loss of electoral contests to the possible ineffectiveness of their political strategies. A likely explanation for this behaviour by both the ruling and opposition parties is the notorious tendency to write off their electoral prospects in certain areas of the country on the assumption that voters in such places are natural supporters of one party or the other without understanding what drives voting behaviour. Take the example of Northwestern Province. In many ways, the province has become more similar to the Copperbelt in terms of economic structures over the last ten years. Politically however, the two provinces remain very different. Voters in Northwestern can see that there is a mining boom unfolding around them, one that they are however gaining little benefit from. Poorly remunerated mineworkers, for the few that are fortunate to find jobs in an industry that is increasingly resorting to mechanisation in an attempt to reduce costs, generally feel neglected as both government officials and trade union representatives appear to have been bought off by the deep pockets of foreign investors. Many rural residents, a number of whom have been dispossessed of their land by powerful multinational corporations, and the growing urban poor, feel left behind and abandoned by a governing party that is dominated by a tendency towards centralisation and which continues to show little interest in knowing their actual grievances and meeting their aspirations. It is this general sense of marginalisation, rather than the UPND’s tepid economic policies, which drives the support of many voters in Northwestern Province for the opposition. Successive ruling parties however remain unreceptive to such protest votes, choosing instead to interpret the voting behaviour of Northwesterners in generally ethnic-linguistic terms.

Similarly, the UPND appears to have a poor understanding about why voters in Northern, Luapula and Muchinga provinces vote so consistently for the PF. The main opposition seems to think that the only way of winning the support of Bemba-speaking voters is through the recruitment of tokenist ‘ethnic big men and women’ or prominent local Bemba-speaking figures to the party, hoping that voters will then follow. This strategy has been largely unsuccessful but the UPND is showing no interest in broadening its appeal in Bemba-speaking rural communities beyond the use of an ethnic strategy. As the PF should do in UPND electoral bases, the UPND would do well to identify and articulate the actual concerns and interests of voters in PF strongholds. A careful and thorough analysis of voting behaviour in either PF or UPND power bases is likely to reveal that ‘ethnicity is not the answer; it is that which needs to be explained’. For within what appears to be ethnic voting is a coalition of demands or grievances that have not been adequately addressed.

If ruling and opposition parties wish to perform well in future elections especially in their opponents’ strongholds, they should consider revising their political strategies. One way of achieving this outcome is by allowing the grassroots, instead of the central leadership in Lusaka or at the provincial headquarters, to transparently determine the choice of party candidates to run for office. The PF did an excellent job on this score in Lealui and Kalilele wards while the UPND needs to undertake a candid post-mortem. Another is for the parties to begin tailoring their actual campaign messages to specific policy appeals that are salient to the aspirations or concerns of the local people. A cursory glance at the campaign messages of mainly opposition parties prior to the recent by-elections revealed their detachment from a politics that was locally constituted in that many of them resorted to discussing broader national concerns like the erosion of democratic principles, the rising levels of public debt and corruption in government, or the soaring rate of unemployment. While these topics may be important at national level, especially in urban centres, they are hardly the sorts of concerns that excite the imagination of voters at ward levels, especially in rural areas.

The point is that the main parties are generally failing to reach beyond their bases and break the status quo. Had the UPND been able, for example, to win a series of seats in Northern Province, or had the PF secured a few seats in Southern Province, such an outcome would have been significant and more enlightening. The fact that neither party did suggests that their political strategies for winning elections outside their strongholds are not working. Partisan supporters of the UPND and the PF should take note of this point. The argument by Mucheleka that the PF’s deployment of state resources for partisan use disadvantaged the opposition only serves to highlight the political ineptitude of the UPND campaign strategy. To remind Mucheleka and his party: Michael Sata won the 2011 elections using “Don’t Kubeba”, a double-edged strategy that encouraged voters to accept the electoral gifts that the politicians gave them, but to vote according to their conscience once in the ballot booth. This tactic proved to be an effective and economically viable way of dealing with political competitors who could afford to comprehensively outspend their opposition. Instead of complaining about the PF’s bottomless financial muscle, the UPND and other opposition parties would do well to adopt a similar strategy in future. This, however, requires taking a long, hard look at the limits of their current political strategy.

One of the important features of the overall outcome of the recent by-elections is that the PF generally fared better in UPND strongholds than the opposition did in traditional PF constituencies. In all the four wards won by the UPND, the PF came consistently second and the margins between the winning and runners-up candidates, except in Southern Province, were very narrow. In one ward in Northwestern Province, one that the opposition party previously won with a landslide, the UPND candidate obtained the same number of votes as the PF contestant and it had to take the returning officer to draw a ‘lot’ (putting the two candidates’ names in a ceramic bowl and pulling one of them by chance) in order to determine the winner. In wards that the PF won, except in Western and Northwestern provinces, the margins between the winning and runners-up UPND candidates were wide. In one ward, in Luapula Province, the UPND came joint-second with Chishimba Kambwili’s embryonic National Democratic Congress. If these trends continue ahead of the 2021 general election, the UPND may have cause for concern. Zambia’s political geography is such that to win a general election, a party generally needs to retain high level of support in its strongholds and avoid losing by large margins in areas that are traditionally loyal to their opponents.

Sishuwa Sishuwa is the last Zambian nationalist. He is obsessed with all things Zambian, particularly politics and history which he teaches when the University of Zambia is not closed. 

This piece first appeared on New Diggers 


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