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LUSAKA: Following the death of President Levy Mwanawasa in Paris on August 19, the race to fill the vacancy of president of Zambia has started and promises to be fierce. However, the battle to choose Mwanawasa’s successor as president of the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) is what is going to be a fight to the last man as nearly 12 aspirants are seeking endorsement as the party’s presidential candidates for the by-election.

They include Sebastian Kopulande, Ludwig Sondashi, Enoch Kavindele, Willa Mung’omba, Finance Minister Ng’andu Magande, vice president Rupiah Banda, Home Affairs Minister Ronnie Shikapwasya, former vice president and evangelist Nevers Mumba, and Health Minister Dr Martin Chitowo. First lady Maureen Mwanawasa is also said to be interested in the job if only to keep the Mwanawasa legacy alive and well.

According to the Zambian constitution the vacancy can only be filled through an election that must be held within 90 days of the vacancy occurring.

Zambia must therefore hold an election by November 17, 2008 at the latest to fill that vacancy.  Government has already indicated that the election will be held as required by law. The president to be elected will be mandated only to complete the late president’s term of office which runs out in 2011 and a new president will then be elected for a full five-year term. Mwanawasa was re-elected for a second five-year term in the September 28, 2006 tripartite elections. 

So, until such a time as the vacancy at the top is filled, the vice president will “perform the functions of the Office of President” as stipulated by the constitution which does not provide for the post of acting president.

It means Vice President Banda will essentially remain that, only now he will be empowered to “perform the functions of the Office of President”. 

It is a strict constitutional requirement that the holder of the Office of President of Zambia should at all times be popularly elected. The requirement is absolute and there is no halfway house.

Thus the election is now the next big constitutional and political event on the country’s calendar. It is coming up shortly and political parties are manoeuvring for vantage. 

Even at this early stage, the election promises to be hotly contested.
Most of the major political players are going through the motions of mourning the departed Mwanawasa. But behind the scenes, all the aspirants are making their calculations and plotting their next move.

There is a sense in fact in which events in the country, including the state funeral of the late president, are already driven by the imperative to replace him. Even the funeral itinerary itself does not seem to be free of those considerations.

Mwanawasa’s body has been lying in state for varying lengths of time in every one of the eight provincial capitals outside Lusaka. Outwardly, it was a reasonable way to conduct the funeral of one who was a national figure.

But not everybody is so sure though. Apart from objections based on traditional sensitivities relating to the treatment of a body, there are more on purely political point scoring. Some see this as a ploy by a contender to attract as much attention as possible and win maximum exposure countrywide at a time that the country’s attention is riveted on the funeral of the late president.

It is around this issue in fact that the first real big political bust-up since the president’s death has occurred.   

Thousands of Lusaka residents queued up to pay their last respects on August 23-24. The public response was truly overwhelming.  Queues snaked around the streets, near the venue, for the whole two days and more continued to come until closedown. It was the event in town.

The next day, the late president’s body was flown to Chipata in the Eastern Province.
There opposition Patriotic Front (PF) president Michael Sata tried to greet the widow, First Lady Maureen Mwanawasa, she snapped at him: “Don’t politicise this funeral.”

She then angrily ordered that Sata – who was beaten into second place during the 2006 presidential elections by her husband – be removed from the scene, saying she did not want to see him again on such occasions.

She expressed surprise that the government had allowed Sata to be present in the first place and pointed out that the political reconciliation between Sata and Mwanawasa was between him and her late husband and certainly not with her!

Afterwards Sata expressed shock that “a widow would do such a thing”.

“She sounded so strong, not like a widow,” he said.

He said he tried to duck the onslaught but was unsuccessful.
Few believe this was a chance encounter. Though one was accused of trying to “politicise” the funeral, many saw it as a clash of perhaps the two leading contenders for Mwanawasa’s mantle and each in their own way sought political mileage from the funeral.
Sata’s real offence may have been “trespassing”.
Mwanawasa, a lawyer herself, appears extremely determined to be the successor to her late husband and it does not seem that she is just a dreamer but rather that she has long schemed and planned her attempt that is now clearly in train.

Her carefully cultivated network has been saying of late that she is the custodian of the Mwanawasa legacy and those who want its continuation should rally around her. “If for a moment, she thinks that she is going to mourn, weep and cry like the rest of us and then attend to her husband’s legacy later, there will be no legacy…Maureen has no choice but to make herself available, whenever needed, to make clear what her husband’s legacy is,” said The Post newspaper in a recent editorial.

There is a network of her placemen who extol her virtues and suitability. One has more or less formally launched her campaign. It is not so far clear on which ticket she will stand but she will obviously have taken care of that contingency in her calculations. 

As the political tempo gathered momentum, the party’s national executive committee (NEC) met on August 21 to examine the changed situation and plot the way forward.

The initial decision was that the party would not go to the convention. Instead NEC would decide the candidate. Naturally, there were protests from the rank-and-file and especially from the provinces, which demanded a convention – and it now seems that is the route it will have to go. Whether such a convention will endorse the candidacy of the late president’s wife is open to question. However, what is clear is that she is resourceful and is not to be underrated.   

Other contenders from the ruling party would be notably the Vice President Banda who, despite his UNIP background, could still run away with the top post, and Finance Minister Magande.

Among the opposition, leader of UNIP Tilyenji Kaunda has been facing an insurgency within his party and there have been the usual violent flare-ups now associated with the party.

The leaders of the two largest opposition parties, the youthful Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND) and Michael Sata of the PF who have been acting in concert lately, will pose a formidable force. They recently held and addressed a successful protest rally against pay increases for ministers and other holders of constitutional offices. They promised rolling mass action against the increases. But it is unclear whether their alliance is part of their grand design to clinch the November 27 race for State House.

Meanwhile, all the attention is focused on the burial of the late president on September 3 when he was to celebrate his 60th birthday.

After he is interred, the political season will be officially open and like one wry Zambian has observed “the fierce political battle will begin.” And it promises to be just that.
(Sila Press Agency)

© MMEGI 2002 – 2008
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