Zambia Goes to the Polls

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On Tuesday Zambians will go to the polls to elect a new president and parliament. The most likely outcome is a period of divided government, in which the ruling party will retain the presidency but lose control of the National Assembly for the first time.

Earlier this year it appeared that the writing was on the wall for the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) government. On the one hand, the controversial opposition leader, Michael Sata, demonstrated the ability to simultaneously employ a range mobilizing strategies to great effect, using ethno-regional allegiances to rally support in rural Bemba areas and rabble-rousing populist rhetoric to whip up great fervor in high density urban towns. This dual support base enabled Sata to secure 38% of the vote in the 2008 presidential by-election, just 2% less than the MMD’s Rupiah Banda.

Significantly, in the two years that followed Sata further broadened the geographical base of his Patriotic Front (PF) party through the clever exploitation of local grievances in areas such as Western Province. At the same time, the formation of an electoral pact between the PF and the United Party for National Development (UPND) promised to prevent a repeat of previous polls, in which Zambia’s first-past-the-post electoral system had allowed the ruling party’s candidate to win with a minority of the vote (just 29% in 2001).

Banda also had his own problems. Having replaced President Levy Mwanawasa following his death in August 2008, he failed to inspire MMD supporters, which contributed to a low turnout of 44% in the by-election of the same year. Thereafter, Banda’s connection with a clique of politicians associated with Frederick Chiluba, the disgraced former President, had undermined his relationship with the independent press and donors alike.

However, six months is a very short time in Zambian politics. In March, the opposition pact fell apart. Just a little later, the MMD began rolling out major development programs across the country designed to remind voters of the party’s economic record. Having secured debt relief under Mwanawasa, the MMD is well placed to invest more seriously in hugely popular public services such as healthcare and education. Over the last twelve months evidence of increasing economic growth has also engendered growing public optimism—even though it has not translated into a noticeable drop in the unemployment rate. In turn, greater optimism about the future appears to have blunted the impact of Sata’s attacks on foreign investors and the close ties between China and the MMD government. These developments, combined with Banda’s control over state officials, vehicles, media and traditional leaders has turned the tide in the government’s favor.

If the more reliable opinion polls are to be believed, Banda will sneak home by between 2-5%. Such polls are extremely politicized and notoriously unreliable: only a few days ago a survey conducted by Lecturers from the pro-Sata Copperbelt area gave the opposition leader a farcical 55% of the vote. For its part, the PF alleges that polling groups such as the Centre for Policy Dialogue are doing the work of the MMD. Nonetheless, the more reliable companies such as Synnovate all give Banda a narrow lead, which is likely to be exacerbated by the advantages of incumbency.

However, the legislative contest—which has so far been largely ignored—is a very different story. Although it is hard to tell how votes will be translated into seats in a Westminster style first-past-the-post system, the expansion of PF support appears likely to deny the MMD a legislative majority, with the ruling party retaining just 40-45% of the seats in the National Assembly. This would force the MMD to enter into a coalition for the first time since it came to power in 1991. Banda’s favored partner is likely to be the UPND because it is both less radical and easier to manage than the PF. If this comes to pass, it will isolate Sata and insulate the policy making process from grass-roots demands for higher levels of state intervention in order to make economic growth work in the interests of all Zambians.

For a breakdown of the poll conducted by the Centre for Policy Dialogue, click here.

For an account of how Michael Sata may yet capture State House,
click here.

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