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(published online in Hardnews)

The results of Zambia’s recent presidential election mark an important historical moment for the country, and the region at large. For the first time since the establishment of electoral democracy in 1991, the incumbent Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) was defeated. Its candidate and the sitting president Rupiah Banda was beaten by a 7 per cent margin by the Patriotic Front (PF)’s 74-year old leader Michael Sata, who was promptly sworn in on September 23.

This electoral transition—though not entirely smooth and accompanied by isolated incidents of violence—signals a new phase of maturity for this country in the Southern Africa, encircled as it is by volatile states like Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe.

Sata, who is popularly known as King Cobra, a reference to his perceived biting tongue, had lost the last three elections by a narrow margin; in 2008 to Banda and in 2001 and 2006 to President Levy Mwanawasa.

Sata at an election rally

In the past, beside the ruling party’s misuse of official state machinery, PF supporters had also alleged rigging of polls by the MMD. In the build-up to these elections Sata had warned that he was, “fully aware that those who are perpetual fraudsters in all elections we have conducted as a country would once again want to falsify the outcome.” However, his fears were a little misplaced this time.

Analysing the Results

Viewing the results geographically, PF swept the polls in urban constituencies concentrated in the capital Lusaka and the mineral-rich Copperbelt Province. This is a general trend that has been witnessed in the last decade, where support for PF and MMD has been split along urban/rural lines, with the latter handsomely carrying the more rural Western, Northwestern, and Eastern Provinces.

Responsible for liberalisation and privatisation, the MMD’s policies seemed to have wrecked havoc in the life of erstwhile beneficiaries of State transfers, making life miserable for them. A case in point is the privatisation of the all-important mining sector, which led to widespread loss of employment, reduction of wages, and casualisation of labour thereby shrinking the flows of money that earlier passed through the formal and informal economies of Lusaka and the Copperbelt. As urban Zambians’ dissatisfactions with privatisation grew, so did the hostility to the MMD. It was only because of the MMD’s hold over rural Zambia—achieved in part through the cooption of hundreds of traditional chiefs—that allowed the party to win elections.

The other divide in Zambian politics is along ethno-linguistic lines: the outgoing president Banda hails from the Eastern Province, and has won a majority of the votes there. Sata is a Bemba from the Northern Province, while the third grouping, the United Party for National Development (UPND) candidate Hakainde Hichilemais Tonga derives most of his support from the Southern Province. In previous elections, the inability of the PF and UPND to collaborate contributed to MMD’s victory. But UPND’s poor show in 2011 coupled with Banda’s less than comprehensive victory in the East meant that PF finally leapfrogged the MMD. This signals a significant reconfiguration of electoral politics in Zambia, as the stark urban/rural and ethno-linguistic divides get narrowed down.

Anti-Privatisation and Anti-China?

Zambia is the largest African producer of copper, a base metal that is a key ingredient in electronics, cars, and power transmission; all essential to the growth of industries in countries such as China and India. The sharp increase in demand for the commodity in the last decade brought panoply of investors and mining companies into Zambia, and the economy witnessed encouraging growth during 2005-2010. But given that, much of the cream was skimmed by foreign enterprises and post-privatisation regulatory structures have drastically cut the share of the State (taxes) and mineworkers (wages and benefits). Despite the growth, Zambians had become increasingly disgruntled with the state of affairs.

It is for such reasons that foreign-owned companies have been on the edge during the election season. While MMD has a strong track record of backing private capital and foreign investment, the PF’s stand is somewhat ambiguous. It has attempted to capture the general dissatisfaction with privatisation by taking more of a nationalist stand on economic matters, while also playing down its radicalism.

An example of this seesaw was the PF’s stance on the question of the mining tax regime. In 2008, the MMD government raised the taxes and royalties accruing from the mining sector, something that PF had long championed. But the latter strangely took a U-turn on this matter and criticised the government for reducing Zambia’s competitiveness internationally. Michael Sata himself has long been viewed as anti-China. His election campaign in 2006 made the increasing Chinese presence in the Zambian economy the central issue, and his loss led to riots in the Copperbelt that specifically targeted Chinese-owned businesses.

Sata has also openly recognized and backed the claims of Taiwan, something that the Chinese do not look at kindly. In 2007 Sata claimed that a Chinese porter in London stole his passport while he was en route to USA on a self-proclaimed ‘mission to discredit China’. It seems that in 2011 Sata somewhat toned down his anti-China rhetoric, though the strand of economic nationalism remained the core of PF’s opposition to the MMD.

India is also well represented in Zambia through a sizeable and long-settled predominantly Gujarati community. These third/fourth-generation Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) own a sizable share of business in the country, and there is some discomfiture amongst them related to the PF’s growing popularity. This is because even though his primary target has been China, Indian-Zambians realise that Sata’s politics aims to challenge all businesses that are perceived as foreign.

It is a continuing problem for them that despite being Zambian citizen, PIOs are always also considered ‘guests’ in the country. Still, having created intricate links with the State at various levels and numerous informal grassroots trade networks, PIOs are more secure than the Chinese, who are recent entrants in the Zambian economy. It is therefore not surprising that Beijing has ‘cautiously endorsed’ the election results, and while other news outlets are excited about the change of guard in Zambia,Xinhua merely foresees ‘tough times ahead’ for Sata.