A presidential by-election on 20 January will fill the office vacated as a result of former president Michael Sata’s death in October 2014, but it is unlikely to bring an end to Zambia’s political and economic uncertainty. Party infighting and unrest surrounding the election mean the next president will likely have to prioritize national and party unity and reconciliation. But he or she will also inherit an economy struggling in the wake of a collapse in copper prices, amidst fears of waning global growth.
Zambia has a tradition of generally well-run elections. But there is nervousness about 2015, because of the far more volatile political mood this time around. A spike in interparty violence, particularly between the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) and the United Party for National Development (UPND), in recent weeks has increased concerns of a contested post-election result, and 7,500 police were mobilized today in a bid to ensure peaceful elections.
There have also been notable intra-party feuds. The caretaker government of former vice president Guy Scott was expected to smooth the transition to a new head of state. But Scott's suspension of Edgar Lungu, then secretary general and defence minister of the PF, in November re-ignited deep divisions within the ruling party. Lungu eventually emerged victorious in a leadership battle with Miles Sampa, who was elected by a separate party conference, and Lungu was subsequently endorsed by the party in early December. But the process has added further combustibility to an already volatile PF mix.
Lungu is a major contender for the presidency and is seen to be carrying the mantle of the popular Sata, but he has a daunting task in simultaneously uniting a divided party and also convincing voters he can craft a truly national vision.
The opponent most likely to benefit is Hakainde Hichilema of the UPND, who heads a relatively unified party and is gaining increasing support from voters who have been alienated by the internal squabbles of the PF. Internal power struggles have weakened other parties, such as the former ruling party Movement for Multiparty Democracy, and Hichilema may also benefit from tactical voting from smaller parties which know they cannot win the presidency.
Whoever wins, political stability is imperative for the country to confront a change in the economic climate. After five years averaging of 5 per cent growth and an increase in tourism and agricultural production, the falling price of copper, which accounts for 70 per cent of the country’s export earnings, has created mounting economic pressure. The mood swing of international investors is exemplified by the 5.7 per cent fall in value of the country’s Eurobonds, the second-biggest decline among 58 emerging markets in 2015 so far. This will heavily restrict the next government’s ability to finance policies to deal with longer-term issues: more than half of Zambia's population lives below the poverty line, around 40 per cent are considered to live in extreme poverty, and urban unemployment is high.
The first order of business will be to deal with a mounting confrontation in the mining sector. Sata’s government recently increased mining royalties to generate revenue for domestic development, in a move criticized by mining companies and the World Bank. In light of falling commodity prices, concerns about capital flight must be addressed and it is likely that, post polls, there will have to be a negotiated outcome among key stakeholders to avoid a costly mining impasse.
Even if the next president can make some economic gains, he will face the daunting task of trying to re-engage a populace increasingly frustrated by fuel shortages, and growing anger among voters at vested political interests disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people. Only by answering these frustrations can the president ensure political stability and rebuild investor confidence.
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