On September 20, Zambian opposition leader Michael Sata defeated incumbent president Rupiah Banda. Sata has become the first president since the return of multi-party democracy in 1991, to not be a member of the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD). He campaigned on a pro-poor platform vowing to share the proceeds of recent development more equitably and demand a better deal from outside investors, particularly Chinese companies. One effect of his election has reportedly already been felt at the Chinese owned Chambishi copper mine, with wages for Zambian workers rising 85%.
To delve further into the meaning of Sata's victory, Think Africa Press asked three experts from our panel, what does it mean for the strength of Zambian democracy and what changes can he, and is he likely to, make to the country's socio-economic policies?
Michael Sata’s win over Rupiah Banda marks the second time that power has transferred from the incumbent party to the opposition. It is the fourth time since independence that presidential power has changed hands. The recent elections further underscore the great progress Zambia continues to make in its sustained transformation into a viable democratic state. Mr Sata’s win was particularly remarkable given the vast amount of money spent by his rivals in what is now regarded as the most expensive election in Zambia’s young history. Perhaps as much $100m was spent by the former ruling party MMD on campaigns, largely aided by foreign donations. That was in addition to their traditional stranglehold over public media, especially in rural areas.
The cross-national nature of post-election celebrations appears to suggest that Mr Sata’s victory may have restored people’s faith not only in their ability to punish a sitting government, a feat they failed to achieve in the last 20 years, but as rightful guardians of the democratic process. In many ways the real winner is Zambian democracy. Despite Mr Sata’s comfortable win (7% victory over his nearest rival), the Patriotic Front (PF) will not have the luxury of a large majority in Parliament that has characterised previous administration. With only 68 seats, from a 158 seat national assembly, we should expect much more vigorous challenge to the PF government’s proposed legislation with more horse-trading on various policies, especially on critical issues like constitutional and public sector reforms. The Opposition is already looking to draw first blood as it seeks to select a more favourable Speaker in the National Assembly. The extent to which Zambia’s democracy is likely to be further strengthened will therefore depend to a greater extent on whether the Opposition can solve the collective action problem and work together to achieve shared goals. That in turn may depend on how Mr Sata handles the different opposition factions, particularly the beleaguered MMD MPs who are still licking their wounds from the unexpected loss of power.
Zambia’s constitution, like many on the continent, vests significant power in the presidential office. Mr Sata’s character and approach to doing politics will undoubtedly have a robust impact on how democracy is further embedded. Once the current honeymoon is over and dissenting voices begin to emerge, how will he respond? Will he, like Rupiah Banda before him, become ultra-defensive and become detached from reality? The early signs appear to suggest that he is keen to maintain his “man of the people” approach, as was demonstrated last week with a trip to his local church with only a few body guards and started mingling with people unawares.
An area where he is likely to find much cross party support is economic policy. The central message of the PF campaign was “lower taxes, more jobs and more money in your pocket”. In particular, they emphasised the need to reduce rising levels of rural poverty, inequality and high unemployment. To make a tangible impact in these areas, Mr Sata is likely to push for much higher mining revenues and cut wasteful spending. The taxation system is likely to be reformed with greater burden on mining companies to contribute a fair share to national revenues. The imposition of windfall tax on mining and a stronger mining code appears inevitable. We are also likely to see stricter requirements on foreign direct investment to be seen to do more to contribute towards infrastructure development and help redistribute the wealth.
In his inauguration speech Mr Sata put the fight against corruption at the heart of his government. Already the President has taken steps to eliminate widely regarded corrupt elements of the previous regime. The appointment of Dr Martin Malama as the new Inspector General of Police has been heralded as a necessary dose in the fight against corruption and political plunder. Similarly, various boards of agencies and parastatals have been dissolved with investigations underway (e.g. ZESCO, Road Development Agency, Zambia Revenue Authority). It is too early to judge the extent to which his vision is embraced by the rest of the new government, indeed whether it is sustainable in the long term, but if he does succeed in reducing corruption this could have a significantly positive impact on the future of Zambia.
The victory of Michael Sata is a testament to the health of Zambian democracy, with Rupiah Banda's gracious concession and exit. Sata, however, will be able to change little of Banda's legacy. The economy, which is growing, is heavily structured around the mining industry, so that capacity for other sectoral growth is possible but limited. He could certainly work to improve delivery of education and health, but Banda's government was doing that as well. Sata does very much need to maintain close links with the Chinese. Despite the rhetoric of some years ago, and several Chinese blunders in labour relations, Zambia needs China for stability and assurance of its mono-sector economy. Sata knows this, he seems to have learnt to control his tongue, but he has neither espoused real policy options - nor does he really have any. Still, any change in the political configuration, after 20 years of MMD rule, is welcome. Mind you, Sata was himself once MMD at a very senior level, and both he and Banda were members of Kaunda's UNIP before that. The real break from the past will come when the old men, of both main parties, MMD and Sata's PF, give way to a younger and fresher generation. Zambia really needs its Obama moment.
Zambians have thrilled themselves by managing a fourth peaceful, democratic Presidential transition and a second change of ruling party since democratisation in 1991. The popular energy that brought the PF into office and the vast celebrations which greeted Sata's inauguration suggest that Zambians believe that democracy can productively channel their frustrations with poverty, unemployment, deepening inequality and corruption into political change. The "Don't Kubeba" strategy that the PF deployed was innovative and very effective. In a context where the incumbent party had vastly superior resources to distribute and was willing to deploy both state and informal repression against opposition activists, PF told their supporters that it was perfectly acceptable to gather up the chitenge materials, clothes and food being distributed by the ruling party, but "Don't Kubeba!" - in other words don't tell the ruling party that you won't be voting for them. Lusaka was full of women in full MMD regalia, putting their finger to their lips and bursting into delighted giggles at the idea of blindsiding an arrogant elite that had lost touch with the masses. The MMD ran an incredibly slick campaign with advice from international 'image builders'. In the end the aspirational messaging of a "Zambian dream" in which, one day, wealth from Zambia's copper-boom would trickle down and everyone could afford to shop in Lusaka's glitzy shopping centres didn't convince.
PF campaigned with a simple slogan: more jobs, lower taxes, and more money in your pocket. There are massive popular expectations of job creation, poverty reduction, action on corruption and, particularly, action to deal with Zambia's liberalised labour market. While the PF is more pragmatic than ideological, early noises from the new administration indicate that low wages, casualisation and the inflow of unskilled (Chinese) labour in the mining and construction sectors are near the top of their agenda. Sata's first public appearance after the inauguration was a skilfully stage-managed meeting with the Chinese ambassador who received assurances about the value of investment and a dressing down on the need for Chinese investors to obey Zambian regulations. Donors and companies are pushing the line that the current very generous tax regime for mining companies could deliver "enough" revenue to the state with more effective tax collection and auditing to block companies' "transfer pricing" strategies. However, the new Mines Minister announced minutes after his appointment a desire to go further. Concerns about "investor sentiment" can be overplayed, particularly with mining houses repatriating vast profits. The new Government may want to take advantage of its mandate to push for a fairer deal between multinationals, the state, workers and local communities. Certainly expectations on the Copperbelt are that it will and the Western aid donors that have historically "disciplined" the country have a much weaker grip than in the past.
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