Oct 23rd 2008 | LUSAKA
FOLLOWING the untimely death of President Levy Mwanawasa in August, Zambians must vote for a new leader on October 30th, just two years after their last presidential election. Four candidates are in the running. But the real contest is between Rupiah Banda, the vice-president who has acted as caretaker since Mr Mwanawasa’s death, and Michael Sata, a fiery populist who was defeated in 2006.
Zambia, a leading copper producer, has been one of southern Africa’s most stable countries. In 1991 its people voted out Kenneth Kaunda, who had run the show since independence in 1964, along with his ruling party. His successor, Frederick Chiluba, stepped down in 2002 after his own party had got fed up with him.
Bordered by troubled neighbours, such as Congo and Zimbabwe, Zambia has avoided violence or coups, even though copper riches were squandered after independence and most people are still dirt-poor. But the poll is a big test. Mr Sata, who claims the last election was stolen from him, has said he will not accept defeat. The ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), in power for the past 17 years, may be tempted to stack the decks in its favour. Can Zambians maintain their tradition of changing leaders peacefully?
The opposition is worried about rigging. Because the election was unexpected, the European Union has sent only a skeletal observer team. But the electoral commission’s chairman is a respected judge. This time, results will be posted outside each polling station, making it harder to fiddle results at the centre. More local observers will be on hand than before. But close or contested results may stir up Mr Sata’s people, who feel his time has come. A former MMD stalwart who broke ranks in 2001 to create his Patriotic Front, Mr Sata appealed for calm after his disputed defeat in 2006. He may not do the same if he feels victory is being stolen again.
Mr Banda, a former diplomat and minister whom Mr Mwanawasa plucked out of retirement in 2006, says he will follow in his predecessor’s footsteps. But he may lack the authority to push for unpopular reforms and steer a divided party. He faced more than a dozen rivals for the ruling party’s nomination. He is something of an outsider in the MMD; until quite recently, he was still a member of Mr Kaunda’s old party. He has also embraced several people whom Mr Mwanawasa had cast aside on suspicion of dishonesty. It is not clear whether he would keep these questionable new friends after the election.
With the friendly bias of the state media and easier access to election funds, the incumbent has a head start. It is a one-round affair, even if no one gets more than 50%. Mr Banda is a slight favourite. But King Cobra, as Mr Sata is known, cannot be written off.
He is popular in the capital, Lusaka, and in the Copperbelt, the economy’s power-house. Many voters want change. Mr Sata draws big crowds at his entertaining rallies. This time he has put more energy into campaigning in rural areas, still the MMD’s base, so that is where the election may be decided.
If Mr Sata won, it is unclear what he would do. Parliament will still be controlled by his rivals, the MMD. He tends to tell people what they want to hear, with promises of more jobs, free housing and lower taxes. In 2006 he fuelled a growing anti-Chinese mood, threatening to cut ties with China, a leading trading partner and investor in Zambia, and to expel foreign traders. Since then he has changed his mind; foreign companies should merely respect labour laws and get no better treatment than local ones. At a campaign rally he was reported to have said he would force foreign investors to have local partners, but his officials deny this is his plan. Critics say he is an autocrat; his party has never had a congress to elect its leaders. His fans say he is a man of action who gets things done.
Whoever he is, Zambia’s next president, who will be in charge only for the three years left in Mr Mwanawasa’s term, may be boxed in. Rising food and petrol prices have pushed up inflation. Zambia relies less on foreign generosity than a few years ago, but a big chunk of its budget is still funded abroad; the tap would soon run dry if economic policy became populist. The economy is more diverse than it was but still relies on copper, whose price has slumped by around 40% since early September. Cash-strapped foreign investors are likely to take a dimmer view of riskier emerging markets such as Zambia, despite its quite perky performance of the past few years. Zambians may have to tighten their belts, no matter who wins.
Source: The Economist