By Paul Shalala
In Zambia, being aligned with the ruling party or the elite is the desire of many. This status is usually attained when citizens join the ruling party, befriend those in government or offer favours to those in the corridors of power.
In every general election the country has had since it reverted back to multi-party politics in 1991, politicians have been crossing from one party to the other in search of acceptance, security, change of status and opportunities.
In the first five months following the triumph of the Patriotic Front (PF) in the September 2011 General Elections, various politicians both from the former ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) and other political parties left their respective parties to join the PF. Some of those defecting included senior MMD leaders like Goodward Mulubwa who was the party’s National Treasurer and others from the party’s provincial executives who joined the now ruling party which they had fought tooth and nail and successfully beat in the past 10 years till it dislodged them in 2011.
But in the last three months, the defections seem to have taken a different direction. This time politicians are leaving the MMD and joining the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) which despite being smaller in size and having fewer numbers of members of parliament than MMD, has swallowed many influential defectors. Three time presidential elections loser Hakainde Hichilema has been at the core of these defections as he hosts press briefings to welcome these new members.
One reason that can be cited for politicians ditching the MMD is the fact that some Zambians do not usually like to associate themselves with a losing party. Just like UNIP which lost elections in 1991, MMD is suffering defections due to its loss of elections last year. Most people who have left MMD are claiming that the party is divided hence its future being bleak.
Despite the MMD and UPND being in a loose and unofficial alliance both in parliament and on the campaign trail, defectors have continued exiting the former ruling party and spilling filth on it when joining the UPND. In recent months, a number of prominent MMD big wigs have left the embattled party to join Hichilema’s UPND.
Edwin Lifwekelo, Edward Mumbi, William Banda and ‘popular’ comedian Thomas Sipalo (Diffikkoti) are some of the eminent figures who have joined the rank and file of Hichilema’s organisation whose motto is to move Zambia forward. Some of these have even been offered senior party positions.
But why are all sorts of people now flocking to UPND? Why are former MMD members being embraced in UPND, a party they called all sorts of names in the past decade? And why is UPND accepting them and further offering party positions to some of them? The following passages will try to bring out the possible reasons why the status quo is like this.
Like any other game, politics has its own rules. One of these rules is numbers. In politics, the more the numbers you have, the more votes you have and the more power you acquire. It is this premise which to some extent has led UPND to accept all those defecting from the MMD despite some of them being controversial figures. UPND is convinced that by accepting everyone who knocks at its Rhodespark secretariat for membership cards, it will grow a mass movement which will help it wrestle power from the PF’s ‘Donchi Kubeba’ machine in 2016 when the next general elections are held.
Project a certain image and win elections
By holding press briefings to unveil ‘big fish’ who defect from other parties to join UPND, the opposition party is very much convinced that it’s a better strategy to win hearts and minds of voters and make them believe that UPND is the only alternative to the ruling PF. This image being projected by the UPND does not go unchallenged because some of the people unveiled by party president Hichilema at his numerous press briefings are controversial politicians who still have issues of credibility in people’s minds.
Greener pastures, opportunism and convenience
It has been said by many that most people who defect in Zambia are opportunists. Some politicians are known to have moved from one party to the other without regard for the ideologies of the political parties they are joining. For example, William Banda was in UNIP, he joined MMD where he served as Lusaka Province Chairman before resigning early this year to join UPND. Despite UNIP being socialist in nature, he left it and joined UPND and MMD which are capitalist in nature. Another example is that of Edward Mumbi who served as Secretary General of the PF, a seemingly socialist-inclined party. Mumbi later joined capitalist MMD and now he is in UPND. Other examples include Edwin Lifwekelo and others who have crossed parties in search of greener pastures, opportunism and convenience. Lifwekelo, who was an outspoken and pro-MMD ‘civil society’ activist, is now deputy spokesperson of the UPND following his defection earlier this year. All these defections seem not to be based on policy or principles but opportunism or convenience because one can clearly see that the defectors leave a party with a totally opposite ideology to the other they later join.
Quality and credibility
When people defect to another party, they are expected to bring value to that party. This is exactly what many UPND leaders expect to get from their allies who are joining them. However, the credibility of some of the defectors is questionable. Their quality too is questionable as some of them have well documented backgrounds which do not earn them respect in society. Therefore, their credibility is questionable. Some are known to be violent even when they talk about peace in society.
Towards 2016 Elections
Despite the next general elections being four years and a month away, the ground is already being set for a showdown. For the UPND, defections are one of the signs that it is preparing for the next polls. However, defections on their own are not enough to warrant an outright victory. Some people are known to have defected today and tomorrow they are back to their former party. The case of Paul Monga is one such example which I can cite, the man has been in and out of UPND for at least three times. In the 2011 general elections, many politicians from the PF defected to the MMD but the then ruling party ended up losing. Therefore, Hichilema and UPND shouldn’t bank too much on the defections. They should campaign not only in the media but also on the grassroots.
Defections or no defections, UPND has a high chance of giving a good run to the PF in 2016. However, Hichilema and his lieutenants should strictly scrutinize all those joining them as defectors. It is true that HH needs these numbers to win as president after losing the past three presidential elections but he needs to ensure that none of these people damage his image to the voters. Appointing some of the controversial defectors to the opposition party’s National Management Committee can have a negative impact on the way his party may perform in 2016. Hichilema’s warm reception to controversial characters like William Banda may have a negative impact on the way people look at his credentials on the rule of law and respect for divergent views due to the man’s history of violence. Just like the example seen in 2011, defections don’t usually count in general elections. Their effect is usually minimal which means the UPND should not spend more time celebrating the defections but spend more time organizing the party on the grassroots.