Zambia Presidential Election: Setting an Example for Africa

In September, Zambians voted in a new president, opposition party leader Michael Sata, whose election resulted in the removal of the heavily entrenched Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) from power. The presidential elections were mostly peaceful, and incumbent President Rupiah Banda, much to everyone’s relief and surprise (given Africa’s track record), gracefully conceded defeat. At a time of frequently contested elections, violent political protests and reprisals, government restriction of political freedoms, and perhaps most disconcerting, attacks on term limits, Zambia’s ability to engage in political transition peacefully and legitimately is to be commended—even if Sata’s political past gives some cause for concern. Zambia, which has a political history similar to that of many of its African neighbors, has managed to foster a political environment conducive to multi-party politics. Moreover, Zambians have demonstrated that rigorous multi-party politics may very well be the key to ensuring democratic practices are protected and advanced in Africa.

 The election of Michael Sata, ends the MMD party’s 20-year rule over Zambia. The MMD’s extended reign, as well as its dominance in parliament, has long been criticized by democracy advocates, who contend that the MMD had re-established de facto one-party politics in Zambia, contrary to its founding principles. Over 20 years ago, it was MMD leaders that helped eliminate de jure one-party politics established by the autocratic and corrupt United National Independence Party (UNIP). UNIP had ruled Zambia unchallenged since its independence in 1964. Over the 25 years that it ruled under the leadership of Kenneth Kaunda, UNIP attacked and dismantled Zambia’s democratic institutions and allowed government corruption to go unchecked. In 1991, however, under extreme pressure from the people and major political and civil society leaders (MMD), who were increasingly angered by UNIP’s unabated power, Kaunda readily relented, and multi-party politics were re-introduced to the country; the constitution was also amended to include a retro-active two-term presidential term limit.

Interestingly, Zambia’s major political transitions, including its presidential transfers of power, have all been predominantly peaceful. After Kaunda permitted multi-party politics in ’91, he suffered a tremendous defeat in the presidential election held that same year, losing to MMD leader, Frederick Chiluba, who won 81% of the vote. Instead of using violence to retain his position, Kaunda immediately accepted defeat. In addition, when Chiluba blocked Kaunda and several other opposition members’ attempts to run in the subsequent presidential election, Kaunda used peaceful protest to contest the decision, which was eventually upheld. It is important to note that UNIP had lost significant support amongst the population in the years leading up to the 1991 election; the fact that UNIP no longer maintained the support or trust of the people no doubt was a major factor in Kaunda’s decision not to further challenge the MMD government, which now exercised considerable support of the population. In 1996, Chiluba did win a second term and the MMD retained significant control of parliament, winning 131 of the 150 available seats.

In 2001, with the next presidential election looming, Zambians once again found their democracy under threat; this time from their MMD president. Chiluba, not satisfied with his two-terms in office, proposed extending presidential term limits to three terms. Chiluba’s proposal, however, was met with swift and powerful opposition, not only from the Zambian people, but from civil society leaders, opposition party members, and even a significant majority of his own party. Fascinatingly, unlike in many other African nations, Zambia’s ruling party, the MMD, was never a homogeneous entity; although its democratic pursuits and free market ideals were largely shared by all members, its membership was highly diverse and comprised of political, economic and civil society leaders from various ethnic backgrounds, with equal share in the country’s success. Also unlike other African nations, the party did not center on any one individual’s leadership—and if Chiluba had attempted to make it so during his tenure, he had obviously failed (in part because he had alienated other ethnic groups and had committed major fraud). Chiluba was eventually tried for corruption, along with some of his cabinet members, after the election of MMD leader, Levy Mwanawasa to the presidency in 2002.

It was during the period of 2001-02 that the MMD became highly factionalized, forcing large majorities to break from the MMD and form new political parties. The 2002 presidential election was contested by 11 parties; three of those parties legally contested Mwanawasa’s narrow victory, citing voting irregularities, but the court upheld election results. Once again, the challenging parties peacefully accepted the decision, opting to focus instead on building their bases and contesting Mwanawasa in the next election. This trend of using non-violent means to resolve often charged political disputes continued after Mwanawasa won yet again by an even narrower margin in 2006, in a fiercely contested election that pitted him against Michael Sata, of the new Patriotic Front party, and Hakainde Hichilema of the also new, United Party for National Development. Although the initial announcement of Sata’s loss prompted rioting in Lusaka, Mwanawasa’s victory (43% of the vote) was again accepted by both challengers, who each garnered more than 20% of the vote.

The origins of the Patriotic Front lie within the MMD’s decline, which began with Chiluba and continued under Mwanawasa’s reign. Mwanawasa was hailed for his consistent stance against corruption, which included prosecuting former President Chiluba, a move that alienated many of Chiluba’s MMD supporters. Chiluba plundered millions of dollars from the country during his tenure. Although rich with copper resources, the country was veritably broke when Chiluba left office in 2002. Chiluba, who died in June of 2011, had been tried several times for corruption in both British and Zambian courts. Chiluba was convicted in a British court of corruption in 2007, but the Zambian courts failed to convict him or to uphold and enforce the British court’s ruling requiring Chiluba to return millions to the Zambian government. Mwanawasa’s decision to prosecute Chiluba angered Chiluba loyalists within the MMD; many of these people left MMD to form new parties in protest.

The formation of the Patriotic Front (PF) in 2001 by Michael Sata can also be attributed to Chiluba. Sata had been a close ally of Chiluba’s throughout his presidency, even vehemently supporting Chiluba’s bid to extend presidential term limits to three terms (a fact that should give many cause for concern). In his support of Chiluba, Sata went so far as to orchestrate the removal of 22 MPs and the country’s Vice President, who had opposed extending term limits. By removing these individuals, all of whom were likely successors to Chiluba, Sata had also hoped to secure his position as future president. It was widely expected that Chiluba would back Sata as the MMD’s presidential candidate in the 2002 election; however, Chiluba threw his support behind Mwanawasa, surprising and angering Sata and other loyalists. It was then that Sata decided to break away and form the PF. Over the course of the next decade, Sata and Chiluba’s relationship would remain shaky, with Sata at times pushing for prosecution of Chiluba for graft—a position interestingly enough Sata did not take up while serving under Chiluba—and at other times, Chiluba actually throwing his support behind Sata in his presidential bids.

Zambia has certainly experienced a healthy diversification of its political parties and platforms over the past two decades. This has no doubt contributed to its success at engaging in peaceful political transition. A one-term president is almost unheard of in Africa. However, in this most recent election, after just one term, Banda accepted defeat and handed over the presidency to Sata without protest. What is perhaps most fascinating about political transition in Zambia is the Zambian people’s ability to shift their political support on the basis of political issues and policies. Political support in Africa is typically motivated by ethnic loyalties; however, such is not the case in Zambia, which is highly significant, as interest or policy-based voting is a practice characteristic of more advanced democracies. In fact, a population’s ability to examine individual issues and base its political support on party/candidate platform and performance, rather than cultural or ethnic ties, is crucial to the development and preservation of democracy.

It is the homogenous nature of Zambia’s demographic landscape that has fostered such practical politics. Although Zambia has over 72 different ethnic groups and 9 major languages, the country is heavily urbanized. Over 44% of its population, an equal mix of all ethnicities, lives in urban areas and therefore relies upon a healthy market economy, as well as government and social services for their livelihoods. It is no surprise then that the focus of Zambian citizens would be government economic policy and corruption. Recent presidential campaigns were characterized by these two issues.

Sata’s campaign in particular focused on the Banda administration’s economic policies, specifically its relationship with the Chinese government, which has invested considerably in Zambia’s copper industry. Sata, as well as a host of civil society leaders and groups, NGOs and the World Bank, have noted that while the country’s GDP has grown substantially over the past few years due to Chinese investment, very little of that profit has actually reached average Zambians—two-thirds of Zambians still live underneath the international poverty line. Opposition parties, unions and watchdog organizations note that most profits are taken out of the country instead of being reinvested in much needed infrastructure, like hospitals and schools. Sata easily exploited public anti-Chinese sentiment to his advantage. He accused Banda of having too close of ties to the Chinese. Banda’s campaign was allegedly funded by the Chinese, and although Banda denied this, he continued to refuse to identify his campaign finance sources. In its campaign, the PF promised a more equitable taxation system that would ensure industry profits benefitted the people. It also promised a more hard-lined approach to graft, criticizing the Banda government for being too soft on corruption.

Both parties, the PF and MMD, promised a strategy for resolving economic disparities and improving economic conditions in the country. Both parties promoted an actual platform, which is atypical of many African political parties. Although we recognize how difficult and very repressive the political environment is in most African countries (especially francophone Africa countries), political parties’ platform is mostly opposing the ruling party. They will often engage in heavy criticism of ruling leaders, but offer less or nothing in terms of a credible, substantive platform. Zambians’ ability and willingness to partake in substantial political discourse is extremely significant. Not only is this a reflection of a more sophisticated political environment, but it is also a strong reason for country’s success at engaging in peaceful political transition.

Sata’s and the PF’s election signifies another important shift in Zambian politics. Sata is a precarious figure with a controversial political past. It remains to be seen whether his fervent pursuit of the Zambian presidency was well-intentioned. For now, he enjoys massive support amongst the majority of the population, and in just the short time that he has been president, he has already made significant changes, including removing some government figures such as the head of Zambia’s anti-corruption watchdog. But more important than Sata’s election is the nature of politics in Zambia and Zambians’ consistent willingness to accept political transition even in the most volatile of political environments. Zambia is one of the poorest nations and has one of the least educated populations in Africa, yet it maintains one of the strongest and most peaceful democracies. It is in the best interest of all Africans to acknowledge Zambia’s progress and to learn from its many successes, particularly its population’s ability to transcend ethnic lines, protect democratic processes when threatened and address and adapt to changing political needs.