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Zambia: The Roots of Radicalism in President Sata’s Patriotic Front

Dan Paget argues that agenda of Zambian president Michael Sata's administration is unpredictable.
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On September 23, Michael Sata was elected president of Zambia. By capturing 43 % of the vote in the presidential election, he and his party – the Patriotic Front (PF) – have ended twenty years of dominance by the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). The outcome is a watershed moment for Zambia.

Sata has often been characterised as a radical. The international press continue to recall his vociferous criticism of China’s role in the country and often portray it as a cornerstone of his agenda. The tumble that the Zambian Stock Exchange took on September 23 is a sign of the fear that President Sata is a dangerous populist, capable of attacking investors and destabilising Africa’s largest copper producer.

Imagine the surprise of commentators when in his inauguration speech President Sata promised to “begin by reducing the size of government… to increase the purchasing power of people as a sure way of growing the economy”. Since then, his administration has promised to fight graft, enact a media freedom bill and create a new republican constitution.

Sober Sata, radical PF

There has long been a sober thread in Sata’s politics. In 2001, he ran for the presidency on a platform of business-friendly policy and easing the tax burden on ordinary Zambians. He has long held a reputation for making government work and cracking heads when it did not.

Simultaneously, the Patriotic Front has been radical. Sata was a nobody-candidate in the 2001 elections, where he won just 3.4% of the votes, but between 2002 and 2005, he vaulted into national politics by speaking to grievances of urban constituencies and his Bemba-speaking homeland. Sata spoke to voters over the radio and in mass rallies that Zambia had not see since the fall of the 2nd Republic, and he was able to draw upon disbanded trade union organisers and church networks to carry his message. The Patriotic Front is a different kind of party to the clientelist party of government that it replaced, and the small, personalist opposition parties that it outshone.

Sata’s charismatic, authoritative oratory style gave credence to his message that the government had done little to make investment work for ordinary Zambians. He accused the government of being compliant, even collusive, with foreign investors making profits despite paying low wages and lower tax.

Resonating populism

His populist message resonated in a country where economic growth has not benefited the poor. Despite economic growth of 5.4% in between 2000 and 2010, the Zambia’s Human Development Index score is still lower today than it was in 1990 during a profound economic crisis.

Over the course of a decade, Sata had honed his message and connected with popular opinion. The 2009 Afrobarometer survey shows overwhelming support - up to 80% - in Zambia for government control of key industries, including copper mining, and provision of key services beyond the realm of education and health, such as agricultural credit. PF support has soared because it spoke to voters in a way that other parties had not.

Sata has also shown pragmatism in opposition. Although he struck out against the Chinese in 2006, commentators have often forgotten how this rhetoric was reigned-in thereafter. In 2008, Sata took out a full-page advertisement in The Post entitled ‘The Asian Contribution to Zambia Since 1905’.

Tied to the populist agenda?

Altogether, Sata is an energetic reformer with centrist leanings. But he built his popularity on a radical support base, and there are centrifugal forces that may tug on the policy direction of the Sata administration. On the one hand, Sata gained his political experience in a party that was a champion of market forces and privatisation - the MMD. And he comes from a generation of politicians that dismantled the one-party socialist state, along with his close confidant, Vice President Guy Scott, and the new Minister for Trade, Commerce and Industry, Robert Sichinga.

However, on the other hand, Sata’s popularity and the future of the PF are tied to the populist agenda on which they rode to power. The PF has invested in this agenda, and Sata’s first cabinet includes an old trade unionist, Fackson Shamenda, as Minister for Labour, and Wylbur Simuusa as Minister for Mines, who has advocated a wind-fall tax on copper mining companies. Equally, Sata has ties to the very one-party socialist state that he took a hand in dismantling, and Kenneth Kaunda, the first Zambian president after whom Sata renamed Lusaka Airport in September. While Sata’s radicalism is rooted in a tough, no-nonsense attitude to government affairs, his party may be the vehicle of a more far-reaching agenda.

An unpredictable administration

These divergent strains on policy will make the Sata administration unpredictable. While promising to increase household spending power and outlining some policies that are decidedly conservative, Sata has demonstrated his intention to preserve his populist support. Mining permits were suspended on October 4, and the government announced interest in taking “at least” 35% stakes in mining companies in Zambia.

By the time of the next general elections in 2016, Sata will be 79. Whether or not he completes his term or runs for a second, the next five years will fashion the soul of the PF. Although the future of the PF remains unclear, we can be confident that Sata will have to strive to preserve his radical base, albeit through flair and instinct, or by delivering the tough stance on investors that he promised.

If the Sata presidency presents risks to Zambia, they will lie not in the radicalism of his programme, but in the unpredictability of his agenda. The radicalism of the Patriotic Front lies shallowly in its policy commitments, but deeply in its connections to voters. If Sata remains true to his supporters, the way that he has related to them will be the lasting legacy of his presidency.

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