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Point Blank: Lessons from Katuba, An Independent Postmortem

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Patrick Sikana 1By Patrick Sikana

Because it may seem abrupt to jump straight to “lessons learned,” let me make one introductory point.

I believe it is important for all political parties that participated in the Katuba by-election to ponder upon 2 questions. For UPND the question to ask yourselves is: Are we susceptible to the same kind of loss that the other 6 parties incurred? For the rest of the 6 political parties that did not win the election, the question to ask yourselves is: Is there something we could have done differently?

Well, these are the two questions, I had in mind when yesterday I suddenly found myself with more time on my hands than I had things for. So under the pretext of looking for those brown and orange mushrooms, I drove to a place called 10 miles, then proceeded to some villages in Mungule, Muchenje and Kabala wards in Katuba constituency where I talked to a cross section of constituents to get their views on what went wrong.

We belong to a country that could win the global trophy for by-elections many times over. We’ve virtually done all the three, right from local government through parliamentary, to presidential. And there’s no end in sight. So while these lessons are not new I was inspired to pen them down knowing that someone might need use them, soon. Since political parties in general tend to suffer from voluntary amnesia, I offer these as a gallery of reminders in good faith.

1) Pride comes before a fall. The PF and MMD overblew their belief in the power of incumbency. They approached the by election with some kind of titanic arrogance. One of the constituency party officials had this to say to me:
“When we started the campaign, the party officials from HQ were so confident. They said ‘what can stop us from getting the seat – we are the ruling party’!

Another one recounted how MMD big wigs bragged: “This is our seat,” they swanked, “we’ve just come to retain it.”

Now, I’ll be the first person to preach confidence. But please don’t confuse it with brash optimism and foolhardy conceit. The PF and MMD in this election clearly embodied a spirit of invulnerability.My advice would be “watch out next time.” In Politics, as in sports, you need to be wary of claims of the invincible. Things can, and certainly will go wrong. We need to hope for the best and plan for the worst. Humility needs to be at the top of the list of lessons learned from Katuba.

2. The choice of candidates matters. When the local Alliance for a Better Zambia (ABZ) party members suggested their priority candidates they were told: “Shut up, we have a winning candidate for you!” Well, first of all, yikes! No matter what position you hold or how much pressure you’re under, it’s always important to properly process what other people are telling you. Humility, as pointed out above, is a key for succeeding in any job, certainly in competitive politics. That doesn’t mean that you need to allow yourself to be pushed in every direction, but being open to what members of the lower party organs have to say about whom they think makes a better candidate can really enlighten your choice.

A jubilant UPND cadre told me that “50% of the victory came from the fact that Jonas Shakafuswa was a salable candidate.” Well, I don’t know about that 50% statistic but you think I care? No I don’t. The point is made. Sometimes people vote for candidates. Other times they vote for parties. And probably for both at yet other times. To know which premise is valid, you need to ask the voters. To get that information from the voters, you don’t begin by telling them to shut up. Didn’t your mama say it’s rude?

3. Focus on the voter’s mind, not their vote. One elderly woman told me that there was rampant vote buying – in her words, “by everyone.” If her testimony is anything to go by, this includes those who lost. Often voters can make you focus on the less consequential part of the battle instead of the core.  Or they might want you to campaign in a way that you know from experience is at least somewhat detrimental to your overall mission. I still don’t get it why political parties continue to offer bribes, even when the past has shown that voters will take the bribe and vote for their own candidate anyway.

Why do parties give in to this temptation all the time? Could it be because it’s easier to splash some cash than to “confront” the voters and tell them why they must vote for you? Be honest about your opinions with your voters. Believe you me, if they vote for you, they will vote for you for other reasons than the K50 you dash them. It’s time you started giving them the benefit of the doubt – that they are capable of dealing with a certain amount of “truth” in regards to who their representative in parliament should be. The lesson here revolves around the battle for hearts and minds of the people. With that comes the vote.

4. Let the by-election find you on the ground. Not the other way round. It has been said that if you don’t organize, you will agonize. I tried to look for just one party official for NAREP  and Cosmo Mumba’s party (what’s the name again?) in Katuba – no one could subpoena a name.

There’s this myth that it is by participating in any election that you mobilise the grassroots. No. What’s all the rush for? We all know that feeling of getting pressure to do things quickly. Because people are used to getting things quickly, sometimes even when it comes to tasks that are extended and complex, people try to get them done quickly. Speed kills – not just on the road, in politics too. Ending up with a zero in a by-election is stigmatizing yourself. Please invest time in forming structures on the ground. Don’t rush into elections for the sake of it – there’s no emergency. Elections are for selecting law makers, not emergency nurses! You can afford to do first things first.

Finally, let me conclude with a few things our political parties must remember:
First, in a drove of pigs headed for slaughter there are always a few (literally and figuratively!) which will be strutting around in denial trying to act as if there is no problem. Katuba has given you lessons. Sit down as a party, it’s time for introspection.

Second, No one party has the monopoly of victory. No matter how much you might want to believe it so. Times and seasons change and with them, the voting patterns. Be alert to the signals.

Third, you may think you have the smartest campaign managers. Smart people sometimes fail. Vigilance and proper planning are key in any election and remember teamwork is critical.

Most of these lessons are easier said than done. One of the reasons some people won’t want to admit most of what I’ve written here is because it makes elections much more complex. But these points affect budget, timelines and as strange as this sounds, it affects the emotional side of the electorate. I recently read Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. One chapter talks about airplane accidents and shows how, more than anything, the problem is almost always a lack of productive communication. Most of the examples of accidents that he brings could have been thwarted if people had communicated openly and confidently.

I think that more than ever before today people in our political parties fear open and straightforward internal communication with each other. This is probably why people act out online where they can easily hide behind their screens and then pretend everything is OK. For some reason people are scared of each other. But it is precisely open communication that can make a party successful, so do it.

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Start: 2019-07-01 End: 2019-07-31