By Paul Shalala
This year’s September 20 Presidential election has been predicted to be one of the most closely contested for polls in Zambia’s post one party state era. Pundits have alluded this trend to the hype, anxiety, expectations and early campaigns which started way before the election date was availed to the public by President Rupiah Banda in late July this year.
In this article, I will try and look at the three major presidential contenders who are not new to this race. These are President Banda, Hakainde Hichilema and Michael Sata. I will look at their possible strengths and weaknesses as they approach Election Day. From the outset, I must hasten to say that any of the three is likely to win this poll as none of them can be described as an under dog because politics is about numbers and all of them have the potential to marshal massive numbers behind them going by their unquestionable popularity countrywide.
For transparency’s sake, I will analyse these three major presidential contenders one by one. I will do it in alphabetical order according to their surnames.
(a) BANDA, RUPIAH BWEZANI (MMD)
Rupiah Banda is the current president of the ruling Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) as well as Zambia’s Republican President. He assumed the country’s top job following the death of his predecessor Levy Patrick Mwanawasa in August 2008 and was subjected to a presidential election that same year which he narrowly won, a poll his arch-rival Michael Sata lost by 35, 000 votes.
Mr. Banda was elected unopposed as the MMD president at the party’s national convention held in April this year at the Mulungushi University in Kabwe. Before being appointed Republican Vice President in 2006, Mr. Banda was a longtime member of UNIP, a party which governed Zambia from independence until 1991 when multi-party politics were re-introduced following the revision of the republican constitution.
From the time he assumed the leadership of the ruling party in 2008, Mr. Banda has faced an internal revolt in the MMD from people who call themselves as the ‘true blues’ and describing him as a UNIPist. These ‘true blues’ are people who once served in the MMD government over the past 10 years and some of them personally endorsed and campaigned for President Banda in 2008 when he was the party’s presidential candidate in that year’s general election. Some of them have since defected to opposition political parties. However, the head of state has since asserted his authority in the party which he hopes can return him to State House next month.
In terms of his chances to win re-election, President Banda stands a better chance against his rivals. One of his biggest advantages is the issue of incumbency. Being in the ruling party and having state resources at his disposal puts him in a position that can help him woo voters to himself. With less than 50 days to polling day, the head of state will be able to reach all areas of the country to campaign because he has absolute access to Zambian Air Force planes and helicopters as well as his Challenger Presidential jet which his opponents do not have.
Secondly, the head of state also has unlimited access to mass media through the state owned Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation, the Zambia News and Information Services, the Zambia Daily Mail and Times of Zambia. This unlimited access helps him communicate his messages effectively to the masses.
Another aspect that can help President Banda in this year’s elections is the economic indicators on the ground. Just recently, the country was classified as a lower middle income country by the World Bank due to its economic reforms which were introduced over two decades ago when the country reverted back to the capitalistic market system. Apart from that, the country has also unofficially left the group of Least Developed Countries (LDC) due to its high Gross Domestic Product which is almost twice higher than that of an LDC. This fact has been widely publicized by the public media and to some extent; some voters have been convinced that his government is delivering on its economic agenda.
However, there are some factors that can have a negative effect on President Banda’s bid for the presidency. He is likely to lose a considerable number of votes in Western Province due to the way he handled the Barotse issue earlier this year. Some pundits feel he did not handle well the 14 January Mongu riots were the Zambia Police Force’s heavy handed suppression of the planned Limulunga meeting to discuss the way forward on the now defunct Barotseland Agreement of 1964 became an election issue. President Rupiah Banda’s government, through his Vice George Kunda, justified the killings of people during the fracas. This incident sent a wave of hate against the MMD across Western Province and the head of state’s opponents, mostly in the opposition, have capitalized on these killings to gain political mileage.
Another factor that can play a negative role on his votes is the MMD adoption process which was recently announced. A number of ‘popular’ candidates were left out despite winning at the grassroots and some party officials have vowed to cast a protest vote against the ruling party. This is being seen as an imposition on the grassroots hence people thinking that the party’s national leaders have not listened to their voices.
Despite both the negatives and positives of the RB campaign I have outlined, President Banda is still a factor in this election because he has an upper hand over other candidates because he has been at the helm of this country for over two years now.
If the head of state loses this election, he is likely to retire to his farm in Chipata just like he did before he was appointed President Mwanawasa’s campaign manager in Eastern Province just before the 2006 general elections. At 74, I do not expect him to continue in politics for another decade.
(b) HICHILEMA, HAKAINDE (UPND)
Hakainde Hichilema is running for presidency for a third consecutive time. He ran and lost in 2006 and 2008. In 2006, he ran as a presidential candidate for a coalition of three opposition political parties namely UPND, UNIP and FDD under the banner of the now defunct United Democratic Alliance. He came out third behind Levy Mwanawasa of the MMD and Patriotic Front’s Michael Sata. In 2008, he again came out third behind Rupiah Banda of MMD and Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front. This time around, HH as he is affectionately known by his supporters is trying to wrestle power away from what he considers the old guard.
Despite his party not having hosted the constitutionally enshrined National Convention which should have preceded this years’ polls, HH has been adopted by his party as its presidential candidate in this year’s polls. Having been elected in 2006, Hakainde was supposed to face re-election this year but his party has kept quiet on the prospects of having an elective National Convention.
HH is a pragmatic young politician who made his fortunes during the privatization process. He assumed the presidency of the United Party for National Development (UPND) in 2006 following the death of its founding president Anderson Mazoka. He tried unsuccessful to align himself with the PF through an electoral alliance which lasted for a year and a few months and collapsed earlier this year.
Since then, Hichilema has embarked on his own UPND campaign dubbed ‘the 2011 HH Real Change Campaign.’ His strategy has been to convince young people that Zambia can be changed using right policies and right people. He believes that the more than one million young voters who registered as voters last year are in support of his bid. He has branded himself as the Barrack Obama of Zambia though he lacks the charisma and oratory skills the American president exhibits when he stands on the podium to preach to his sympathizers. So far the response to his campaign has been good though he has not yet been exposed to areas which have traditionally been called traditionally UPND no-go areas. These are areas such as Luapula, Northern and Copperbelt provinces.
HH is one of the presidential candidates who have a clean track record. He has not been known to have been personally involved in violence or corruption but his biggest problem is the tribal tag that people have not yet removed from his party. In 2006 when he was pitted against Sakwiba Sikota at the UPND National Convention, some of his supporters openly campaigned that the UPND can only be led by a Tonga, not any other tribe and he won the contest, beating Sakwiba who is Lozi. Since that incident, the tribal tag has not run away from HH and to some extent, it could have contributed to his failure to get to Plot One in the past two elections and it may again haunt him this year if he doesn’t shrug it off.
HH also lacks the populist approach to politics which one of his rivals champions. He needs to put on that attribute if he is to win the hearts and minds of the Zambian people. Yes good policies and good poetry matters but voters feel represented when their political leaders identify themselves with their suffering.
Another potential problem to his prospects for State House this year is his poor media relations. HH and UPND need to realise how important the media is in any election. They need to partner with it if their campaign promises are to find a channel of being disseminated. His advisers seem to be at war with the media after they declared a leading tabloid as its public enemy number. This and another example were a reporter was almost lynched at the UPND secretariat, maybe one of the reasons why HH is rarely covered by the mainstream media. Effectively using the media can help one gain entry into public office. People like Barrack Obama, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair have effectively partnered with the media to ultimately communicate their campaigns for election, therefore, HH’s advisors and UPND campaign strategist need to embrace the ‘fourth estate’ in this year’s elections if they are to effectively communicate their ‘Real Change’ message.
In this year’s elections, HH is seen as an outsider by many but he has the potential to surprise all as his lone campaign has managed to pull crowds in Western, North Western, Central, Copperbelt and Lusaka Provinces which he has visited in the past three months. HH is rarely covered by the media but his silent campaign strategy has to some extent paid off. During the Chilanga parliamentary by-election last year, HH embarked on a door-to-door campaign which was virtually blacked out by the media but what virtually came out was a resounding victory for his party candidate, Captain Cosmas Moono.
HH is also likely to be a deal breaker this year because I foresee a hang Parliament after the polls. If HH doesn’t win the presidency, he is likely to be co-opted in a coalition government because his party is poised to get more seats in Parliament going by its grabbing of three parliamentary seats from the MMD in the last three years in North-Western and Lusaka Provinces and its perceived popularity among young people.
If he loses, HH is likely to stay on in politics considering his young age. He may try again to win the election in the next five years and may remain active in politics in the coming decades as he is now in his mid forties.
(c) SATA, MICHAEL CHILUFYA (PF)
Michael Chilufya Sata is a veteran Zambian politician whose political influence cannot be ignored by anyone competing against him. His political life stretches far and wide. He has served in many capacities in government. At one time, he was the third most powerful man in the Zambian government. This was when late President Frederick Chiluba appointed him Minister Without Portfolio and he was also the Chief Executive Officer (National Secretary) of the ruling MMD at the time. He however fell out of Chiluba’s favour and was sidelined as his successor and MMD presidential candidate for 2001. He left the ruling party and formed the Patriotic Front on whose ticket he ran unsuccessfully in that year’s presidential polls, though he produced one Member of Parliament.
Since then, the King Cobra, as he is popularly known, has adopted a populist approach to politics which has won him millions of supporters countrywide. He has tried most of the times to identify himself with the people’s suffering to gain their sympathy and support. He at one point went to buy fuel with a small container at a filling station when the country faced an acute shortage of the commodity. It is this approach that has led voters in most urban areas such as Lusaka, Luapula, the Copperbelt and Northern Province to give him overwhelming support.
Last month, the Patriotic Front held its first ever General Conference where its national leaders were elected, though without a ballot being cast. This was the first time the largest opposition party in Zambia was subjecting its senior leadership to elections. Mr. Sata was elected PF presidential candidate for the 2011 elections, he was unopposed. In the 2001, 2006 and 2008 Presidential elections, Mr Sata was not given the popular mandate by his party to attempt the elections but this time around he is going in the polls with a PF mandate.
Looking at the 2011 presidential elections, Mr. Sata is likely to gain more votes due to a few reasons I will explain below. Firstly, there is a feeling among many poor Zambians that the economic growth being pronounced by government and the international community is not being felt on the ground. The King Cobra has taken advantage of this situation to tell Zambians that they are poor because they have an uncaring government. This is the message he has been preaching countrywide and some sections of society seem to have accepted it. They may help Sata get enough votes that he needs.
Secondly, Mr. Sata has been consistently accusing the MMD government and President Rupiah Banda of being corrupt. He has cited the removal of the abuse of office clause in the revised Anti-Corruption Commission Act, the disbandment of the Task Force on Corruption as some examples of the deteriorating efforts towards the fight against corruption. Sata also points at the good environment President Banda gave to late President Frederick Chiluba even before he was acquitted on corruption charges, as one example of the perceived reduction in the fight against graft.
Thirdly, Mr Sata has accidentally and instantly become a ‘savior’ for disillusioned Lozis in the Western Province. After the January 14 Mongu riots were people were killed by Police officers over the Barotseland Agreement of 1964, Sata became a self proclaimed defender of the Lozi people. He became outspoken on the issue, promising to restore the Agreement in full should he win this year’s polls. His unwavering support for the Barotse activists, the Linyungandambo and anyone supporting the restoration of the Barotseland Agreement, won him a lot of support in the region. This stance culminated in his hero’s welcome when he visited the province in May this year and later held huge rallies in Mongu and Senanga. Sata is expected to exploit the anger people have over the MMD’s handling of the matter and win him the much needed presidential vote in the area this year.
Mr. Sata also has unlimited access to certain private media institutions, making his campaign messages easily accessible to the masses. Every time he goes on a campaign trail, he always carries with him a pack of journalists to ensure that his campaigns are effectively relayed back to the masses. It is this strategy that may help him close the 35, 000 votes gap which made him lose the 2008 presidential election at the hands of President Rupiah Banda. He has also been promising the media so many things like relaxing the licensing regime for broadcasting stations, re-introducing the Freedom of Information Bill in Parliament and changing the media landscape.
However, Mr. Sata, who is seen as President Banda’s main challenger this year, also has a number of factors that can damage his campaign. The increasing number of MMD defectors who are joining his campaign may in the long run affect his standing in society. It is not too long ago that many defectors from the MMD joined the PF and Mr. Sata embraced them, he adopted them as parliamentary candidates and they won the seats; however they later rebelled against him and the PF, today they are back in the MMD. They may repeat itself if the King Cobra is not careful.
Secondly, the propaganda against him is somehow having a huge impact on his campaign. At list three anti-Sata tabloids are on the streets of Lusaka and people are reading all negative stories against the King Cobra. If people believe what is being written about him, then a good number of PF supporters may decide not to vote for the old man because of the gravity of allegations being peddled against him.
Thirdly, some voters feel they are obsessed with old politicians. Mr. Sata is now 73 years old, a year younger than President Banda. They may not vote for Sata due to his age and persistent media reports that he is unwell. However, the PF strongman has most of the times come out in the open to deny such reports as MMD-orchestrated propaganda aimed at tarnishing his image.
Despite all these negative attributes, no one can take away Sata’s charisma, his popularity and influence among Zambian voters. Therefore, 2011 is likely to be his last attempt to wrestle away power from the MMD which has ruled this nation for the past 20 years. If he loses, he may retire from active politics due to his age and may most likely still remain a force within the Patriotic Front but not necessarily as leader of the opposition in the country.
All in all, the three major presidential candidates have what it takes to turn the tables, but only one of them or a surprise candidate I have not analysed, will carry the day on 20 September 2011 when Zambian voters decide who their President for the next five years will be through the ballot.
I’m a voter and if you are a voter too, don’t hesitate to look at these candidate’s policies so that we can all make informed decisions as we cast our ballots when polling day comes.
I wish the Zambian people all the best as they perform their democratic right on September 20, 2011.