Zambia polls reveal sobering trends

It is difficult to see how polls can now be rigged in the region, if they ever were. SADC has issued a fairly detailed set of instructions, binding to all members as a minimum requirement, for independent management of elections and it backs these by sending in a team of observers, all of whom have wide experience of elections.

This neighbourly overview has two advantages. First the neighbours have an excellent knowledge of likely local conditions, for Southern Africa shares so much in culture and history ‘ so what is going on next door is not that much different from what happens at home.

Secondly, the neighbours desperately want legitimate and properly elected governments next door to them; Southern Africa has seen far too many wars over the last 40 years and everyone knows that the only way to entrench peace is to let the people choose, freely, whom they want in their parliaments and presidential offices.

So, losers should accept their defeat, although vowing, of course, to do better next time. They need to work out why their appeal is limited, and then see how they can extend their support.

But the winners need to do this too, and, since they will form the government, they have a special responsibility.

In the latest Zambian election it became obvious that while the country is moving ahead swiftly on the economic front, and with real wealth now being generated in rural areas as a revived agriculture turns Zambia back into a food exporter, the very poor in urban areas feel left out.

We doubt that Mr Michael Sata, who leads a party whose main appeal is that it is Mr Sata’s party, has vast popular support. He is too much of a lone “gunman” without the sort of team any president needs to govern effectively. What gained him so many votes was a willingness to voice the problems, and the near despair, of the urban poor.

UNIP eventually lost power because of economic crises, but Zambians tended to be uniformly poor in the UNIP days. The MMD was a party built on support of skilled workers and the middle classes, the better-off urban dwellers. President Mwanawasa in his first term pushed policies that benefited these groups and brought on board the rural poor with his agricultural revival programmes.

Not unexpectedly, with this grand alliance behind him, he won a second term with a significantly higher vote and a far greater margin over the second and third placed candidates.

Now he needs to bring in the urban poor. He has to remind the sort of well-suited economist, who usually puts together economic plans, that there have been losers in the economic turnaround and they, like all other Zambians, deserve something better. With debts written practically completely and vast sums in donor funds entering Zambia, it should be possible to put together things like a housing programme (construction is one of the best ways of absorbing large numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled workers) and upgrade Zambia’s somewhat scanty technical education system.

The same need for victors to reach out to the supporters of the losers is also important in Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe and the DRC.

In Mozambique and DRC there are geographical divides, both the result of troubled history. These divides might seem unreasonable, but presidents have to make themselves the presidents of all the people.

So, special efforts are needed in Central Mozambique and western DRC to reassure the people that they are part of the nation, that their concerns will be listened to and that they should not feel like losers. That highly pragmatic politician, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, has managed to overcome his nation’s geographical divides by bringing the Zulus of the east and the Afrikaners of the west into his government system.

Zimbabwe is more like Zambia; the divide being social rather than geographic or ethnic. The Zimbabwean opposition scores high in the urban areas. Partly this is because of the high inflation, which hits wage-earners, who are mostly urban, far more severely than the self-employed, with farmers easily forming the largest such group.

Both governments need to make sure that these groups, who feel so alienated, are assured that they are part of their country, that they have a contribution to make and that the government is aware of their special problems. They are unlikely to be totally satisfied, but it should be possible to reach a stage where a working relationship is possible.

And, of course, these self-alienated groups have to accept the results of elections, recognise that their parties lost, and start working on ways to have their concerns addressed by the national governments.

For in the end a parliament is a parliament of all the people, not just a collection of politicians from an assortment of parties, and a president is a president of a whole country, not just his own supporters.

We believe that if all recognise this, much progress can be achieved (in the short and long terms) now and future elections campaigns can be fought on far more substantive issues than where one lives, what language one speaks and what sort of job one has.

October 2006
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