The election season is here again. As a student of politics I cannot resist the temptation to render voice to the unfolding political drama in our country by trying to make sense of what is really happening. Undoubtedly, the factional struggles within the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) occasioned by the death of President Michael Sata, Rupiah Banda’s defection to the PF ahead of the 2015 presidential election, Edgar Lungu’s narrow victory against Hakainde Hichilema and a debilitating economic crisis have all combined to produce a political cocktail that has left the PF most vulnerable to electoral defeat in this year’s general elections.
In the last few months the political debate has been dominated by escalating political violence, defections to and from the major political parties and most recently endorsements. None of these events are new to our politics. They have been with us since 1991 and have to be accepted as part of our political culture. Significantly, President Lungu called for an inter-party meeting to discuss political violence, with the mediation of the Christian clergy. The meeting held on Tuesday 5th April, 2016 at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and attended by leaders of 18 political parties, including, Edgar Lungu and Hakainde Hichilema, has not done anything to stop violent confrontation between supporters of the two major parties – PF and UPND.
This is a bad indictment on Edgar Lungu, as it indicates that he is either unwilling or unable to command law-enforcement agencies to maintain law and order and protect citizens of the enjoyment of their rights as enshrined in the Constitution of Zambia. My view is, there was no need for the inter-party meeting on political violence. It is within the power of the President of the Republic of Zambia to enforce law and order and to ensure that every citizen enjoys their political and civil rights as enshrined in Part 2 of the Constitution of Zambia. For failure to decisively deal with violence, Lungu has breached his oath of office and in some countries would have been liable to impeachment.
Since Edgar Lungu’s ascent to the highest position in the land, we have witnessed claims from senior PF leaders of how he was the ‘chosen one’, how the PF won the election with a ‘landside’ and how the UPND was whitewashed, using Dandy Crazy’s rendition kolopa.com. It is important to put these claims into perceptive. It is erroneous and misleading to claim that Lungu’s 2015 victory was a ‘landslide’. Former Vice President Guy Scott described the result as inconclusive and close to a draw in political terms. Despite former president Rupiah Banda’s support, PF’s support only increased by five percent from 2011, while that of UPND increased by more than 25%. Undoubtedly the election put Hakainde Hichilema in the most unassailable position as hot favourite to win the 2016 presidential election.
Granted the PF has won most of the parliamentary and local government by-elections held since Lungu assumed the presidency, but that may not reflect the true position regarding public opinion towards PF’s governance record. Incumbency advantages and a perception that it is of no value voting for the opposition has often persuaded voters to vote for the incumbent. We saw this under the MMD, that despite a good run in by-elections, the MMD tumbled in the 2011 general elections.
This coming election will be a two-horse race, between the ruling PF and the UPND. The real contest will be between Edgar Lungu and Hakainde Hichilema. A kind of political re-match. Of course the election will be held under a new constitutional and electoral regime, in which the winner has to garner at least 50 percent plus one of the votes. If the voting patterns of the last five elections are anything to go by, the PF will need to take the competition offered by UPND very seriously.
As I see it, three factors will work to favour UPND. First, without Michael Sata, the PF has a very weak and most unattractive candidate in Edgar Chagwa Lungu. Second, an economic crisis in the form of job losses of over 10,000 on the mines as a result of poor mine tax laws; debilitating electricity shortages/load-shedding; high mealie meal prices coupled with shortage of mealie meal; high exchange rates and high cost of living as a result of high inflation rate of 22.5%. Thirdly, a divided and fragmented ruling party as a result of the succession battle to replace Michael Sata.
While it is too early to know with utmost certainty the intentions of the voters ahead of the 2016 general elections, the fractures within the ruling party point to serious problems that will influence voting choices. Indeed, we have witnessed defections by former MMD leaders to PF, notably, Dora Siliya and Kapembwa Simbao who regained their seats on the PF ticket and are now part of Lungu’s political entourage. Edgar Lungu’s preference for MMD leaders to loyal PF leaders may have alienated his potential base of support in the Copperbelt, Lusaka, Luapula, Muchinga and Northern provinces. To be sure Lungu has completely changed the complexion of the original PF, which may be responsible for the current disenchantment within the upper echelons of the ruling party. Thus the on-going defections from the PF and endorsements of the UPND are informed by these developments.
As is customary these defections and endorsements have been dismissed as insignificant. Those who have left the PF have been branded ‘bitter’,‘tribal’ and inconsequential. But I contend that the defections and endorsements are significant and of consequence if those leaving were influential and highly respected within the party and society at large, if they are leaving on matters of principle and if they have a discernible constituency. The resignations from government by three deputy ministers within three months should be a matter of grave concern to the stability of a regime. Further, endorsements of HH’s candidature in the August 11 general elections from prominent individuals, including former vice president Guy Scott and eleven respected MMD sitting members of parliament is not a small matter which can be wished away. It has eroded public confidence in the PF and President Edgar Lungu’s leadership and suitability to continue in office
Neo Simuntanyi is a lecturer at UNZA