Swing provinces in January election – Some personal reflections

Filed under: Politics,Special Comments |

By Henry Kabinga

A recent posting on Zambian internet sites quoted the political analyst and friend of mine Neo Simutanyi as saying whoever wins Lusaka and Eastern Provinces will decide the winner of this month’s Presidential election. The article seemed to suggest that the two provinces must both be won by one candidate to decide the outcome of the election. It is not clear if this is what Neo meant as he was being quoted off an interview he had given to QFM radio.

It is possible he simply said Lusaka and Eastern are the swing provinces because the question that arises in my mind immediately is who wins if one candidate takes Lusaka and the other takes Eastern Province? (The assumption here is that we are talking about Hakainde Hichilema and Edgar Lungu). I raise the last question to demonstrate that there is more to the question than the answer suggests. Furthermore, I think that unlike some of the previous elections where swing provinces have clearly been seen such as the 2006 election where it appears Eastern Province swung the election in favour of Levy Mwanawasa (hence the appointment of Rupiah Banda as Vice President), the 2015 scenario is not as straightforward.

I will proceed to outline some of the factors that make this coming election somewhat different from previous relatively black or white affairs. Firstly, the 2015 election is being held against the backdrop of very serious fissures in two of the major contenders, namely PF and MMD. The fratricidal fights that have taken place in these two parties have led to very major realignment of forces that make outright predictions rather perilous.

We have a scenario where the MMD, Zambia’s dominant party in twenty of the last twenty three years split into three rather significant groups. One group comprising of both Members of Parliament and NEC is rooting for the party President Nevers Mumba who is the official MMD candidate. The other group also comprising of MPs and NEC members has chosen to back the UPND candidate, Hakainde Hichilema while very recently, a group that had backed Rupiah Banda’s failed election bid, and led by Rupiah himself has thrown its weight behind Edgar Lungu of the PF. This electoral variable cuts across provinces and affects the whole country.

As if the dynamics cited above are not sufficient enough to cause difficulties in making predictions, the PF itself is split into three factions, yes, you heard me right, three.

One group is backing Edgar Lungu while the second group that includes PF MPs Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba (GBM) and Sylvia Masebo has come out in support of Hakainde Hichilema. This group includes not just individuals but entire PF structures such as the Western Province Committee that is supporting Hichilema’s candidature.

The third group comprises those that have only recently left the PF to join Wynter Kabimba’s newly formed Rainbow Party. I include these as a PF faction because until very recently, they comprised whole PF structures such as Constituency, District and Provincial Committees. I am made to understand this category is also supporting Hichilema. A recent article in one of Zambia’s leading papers mentioned that the Rainbow Party in North Western Province led by losing Solwezi Parliamentary candidate Newton Malwa is campaigning for Hichilema.

Predicting provincial election outcomes in previous elections was relatively easy. For instance, it was always known where the UPND would score big and where they would fare very badly, and likewise for the MMD and the PF. Even as far back as 2001, Anderson Mazoka’s landslides in Southern, Western and North Western Provinces were predictable just as his abysmal performance in Luapula, Northern and Copperbelt Provinces could be foretold.

One notable previous outcome arising from a swing vote was 2001 when the UPND candidate, (in an arguable win that is still a controversial talking point today), took Lusaka Province by a wide margin. Anderson Mazoka emerged winner against most predictions (it was always assumed that Christon Tembo of the FDD would carry the day in Lusaka). Mazoka’s surge in Lusaka was a very late one and appears to have come on the back of two very significant events. One was his polished ZNBC live television debate performance against a rather lackluster and bumbling showing by Christon Tembo. Godfrey Miyanda, another serious contender tied himself in all sorts of knots as he tried to explain away his not so easily understood Village Concept!

What appears to have clinched the deal though, was Dr. Kenneth Kaunda’s rather indirect endorsement of Mazoka when he (Kaunda) appeared on one of the last Let the People Talk programmes on Radio Phoenix prior to the election. Kaunda, when asked a very touchy question at the time, as to whether Mazoka had stolen (some say switched) cattle when he was Zambia Railways Managing Director replied “do you think I would not have had him arrested if he had” or words to that effect.

That answer put to bed all talk on that subject from then on, effectively clearing Mazoka of any past wrong doing. And when asked who he was endorsing for President, KK gave the audience a choice of three names; Mazoka, Tilyenji (his son) or Nevers Mumba. The populace took that as an endorsement of Mazoka as the other two were in any case not serious contenders. The result? An emphatic win for Mazoka.

Let me get back to the subject of swing provinces in Zambian elections, I am of the view that in this election, predicting outcomes for a number of the provinces will not be easy. For instance, we have seen for the first time, a very determined effort by Hichilema to reach out to areas where his showing in previous elections was very bad. Hichilema, buoyed by the support of such big names as GBM, UPND National Chairperson Mutale Nalumango, Felix Mutati and Morgan Mucheleka among others in Northern Province; and Katele Kalumba, Chief Puta and his Indunas among others in Luapula Province; is set to do infinitely far much better than UPND has ever done before in these areas.

The fact that these personalities are on the ground and campaigning even in the absence of Hichilema will definitely result in a very robust showing. There is also no doubt that given the overwhelming support of Copperbelt rural and the discontentment of urban Copperbelt dwellers especially in Chingola, Luanshya and others, with PF neglect; Hichilema is bound to increase his vote in this province very significantly.

Most observers would state that Lusaka, Luapula, Northern and Copperbelt provinces are safe areas for Edgar Lungu going by the previous showing of the PF. This could be so but could equally turn out to be delusional. I say so because what made them safe was Sata’s sheer personality and campaign abilities. Sata was a mover and shaker and carved out a niche for his party singlehandedly and single mindedly. Sata died and with him the PF persona. Edgar does not have Sata’s personality and charisma and whether he can maintain the PF’s strength in these ‘safe’ areas makes for a serious bet. I have already mentioned the expected significantly improved showing of Hakainde in these areas.

Another significant aspect of this election is the ethnicity of the major contenders. A good number of the strong candidates in this race are from Bemba speaking areas, the traditional stronghold of the PF. Whereas the general assumption is that a divided opposition vote favours the ruling party, this may not apply this time around. With Nevers Mumba, Edith Nawakwi and Elias Chipimo all ethnically hailing from the same PF stronghold, Edgar Lungu’s advantage over Hichilema is severely curtailed as he is bound to share this ‘Bemba’ vote with these others. It does not help when campaigns take on an ethnic tone such as Elizabeth Mulobeka’s recent tribal remarks about Bembas voting only for other Bembas. No doubt the fact that Lungu, while enjoying overwhelming Bemba support, is not Bemba, will not be lost on the voter.

Continuing with the ethnic card, the recent support that Edgar has garnered from Rupiah Banda, while appearing to favour Lungu in Eastern Province could turn out to be a poisoned chalice for Lungu. Banda’s support and the rather not well thought out and weak reasons he advanced for his endorsement were not very convincing and the ‘Umodzi ku mawa’ and ‘Wako ni Wako’ tribal connotations could easily be discerned. Does this help Lungu’s overall vote countrywide? Given the adverse reactions from even his closest confidants such as Ambassador Joe Mwale and a good number of Eastern Province MMD MPs, I am inclined to respond in the negative. Banda’s support is also bound to be very suspiciously regarded by the PF rank and file who might well question the wisdom of voting for Lungu.

The rural vote is not homogenous across the country and often follows elements of ethnicity or ethnic associations. This vote comprises mostly of peasant farmers whose concerns are basically those to do with provision of farming inputs and payment for their produce. The PF Government has failed the peasant farmers most of whom have not been paid for the previous farming season and their anger has resulted in riots and demonstrations across the country.

It is already a talking point and recent indicators point to the Eastern Province, a major agricultural producer voting against the PF candidate basically as a result of these agricultural failures. This may wipe out any advantage RB’s endorsement of Lungu may have brought to Edgar’s campaign. I would hasten to think that for the first time, this voting block could become homogenous and unanimously vote for Hakainde countrywide. I therefore submit that if there be a real swing vote by block, it could be right here in this paragraph!

I would like to address the issue of the individual top contenders last. Hichilema has so far been in three presidential elections in which on all occasions he came third. He can be considered a veteran of elections and it has started to show. That he has improved his electoral strategy is very clear. His campaign currently is the most organized, his message consistent and focused and his coverage very wide spread. He started with whistle-stop campaigns in all provinces and followed these up with a concentration of campaigns in areas where he is weak.

It is understood that after completing tours in his strongholds of North Western, Western, Southern, Copperbelt Rural and large parts of Central Province, he will use the remaining two weeks to do ‘the big ones’ which include Lusaka’s peri urban and Copperbelt urban areas. This format is both strategic and tactical and could well decide the election.

Lungu’s campaign started off shakily having come off a very acrimonious convention that left his party deeply divided. To date the wounds are still fresh and the campaign itself is yet to gather the momentum of his major rival. Another factor working against Lungu is his lack of a message. Almost from the start, Lungu appeared to be unprepared for this election. From admitting to not having a vision of his own, Lungu has bungled his way through the campaign, making the exact same promises Hakainde is making and generally failing to articulate issues in a coherent and cogent way. To be fair to him, he was not ready for the task at hand.

Lungu does not have the luxury of time. From my personal experience of campaign politics, I can say with certainty that Lungu will not be able to sufficiently cover the country in the time remaining. He still has a number of provinces to cover which he hasn’t been to with only two weeks before the election. As I write now, he is just shuttling between Northern/ Muchinga and Eastern Provinces! This could be fatal for his electoral chances given that he is a relatively unkown quantity. There will be areas in this campaign where some people have never heard of him let alone seen him. His opportunity for visibility was further tactlessly squandered when he refused to appear on a ZNBC presidential debate programme.

There are those who think this election is too close to call and that could well turn out to be true. On the balance of my arguments above, I am personally inclined to think that Hichilema currently holds the advantage. I conclude by stating once more that the issues at hand are complex and cannot be reduced to the question of the ultimate winner being one who takes Lusaka and the Eastern Provinces as suggested by Simutanyi.


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