By Michael Chishala
More than a year ago, I wrote an article in which I expressed strong concerns that the main opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) was making itself irrelevant by being fixated on their dead election petition and their “right to be heard” court case. Many others since then have began ringing the alarm bells and urging the UPND to make themselves an effective opposition party.
I can now confidently say that the UPND is the most ineffective main opposition political party I have ever seen in Zambia. Words like “toothless”, “hapless”, and “impotent” are among the words I can use to describe the UPND in its current state. In the last 3 years, they had two clear chances to win an election outright, or at the very least, put themselves in pole position to win the next General Election in 2021.
I expected UPND to be on fire and be constantly attacking the ruling party the Patriotic Front (PF) who have made many unforced errors and sadly seem to have forgotten the men and women that voted for them. Like the PF to the then ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), I expected UPND to be all over the PF and induce better governance for Zambia as they point out the mistakes of PF. There is nothing worse for a country than an opposition that fails to keep the ruling party on its toes. It leads to a comfort zone from which only decay and decline can proceed.
The recent electoral loss by the UPND of the Chilanga Parliamentary seat and several Ward by-elections before that have proven beyond a shadow of doubt that UPND is a party in decline that has failed to wake up and smell the coffee. They have failed to realise that Zambians simply don’t give a damn about their court petitions and are more interested in development and an effective opposition party that is constantly selling itself as a viable alternative to the sitting government.
The results of the Chilanga by-election were not a surprise to me. I had already began hearing whispers before the election from ordinary people in what was a clear UPND stronghold that they were fed up with UPND and wanted development.
They have been neglected for so long and are no longer inspired by the UPND and its president Mr Hakainde Hichilema. These are things being discussed in villages, farms and minibuses. There is simply no reasonable excuse for a 20 year old opposition party to be ceding ground in its strongholds to the ruling party after coming so close to winning the 2016 elections, a mere 2 years ago.
The UPND pressed the self-destruct button by selecting one of the worst possible candidates to contest in Chilanga, probably feeling overconfident of winning as they did in the last two Presidential elections. They took two shotguns, took very careful aim and shot themselves in both feet!
So poor is their recent decision making that even the Zambian Watchdog which traditionally has been their mouthpiece parted ways with them for this Chilanga by-election. I cannot see proper advisers, strategists or an effective media team in the UPND. It is almost as if they have given up and are demoralised as decay and decline are beginning to take their toll.
All this bodes very badly for Zambia because it leads to complacency in the ruling party which is usually followed by excesses and abuse of power. We are slowly heading towards a situation whereby the opposition are so impotent that people decide to keep the ruling party in power, not because they are doing well, but because there is no credible opposition.
At the rate they are going, the UPND might as well disband and kiss the 2021 elections goodbye. The people of Zambia can only give them so many chances before they move on and pick a different party. Newly formed parties like the National Democratic Congress (NDC) under Mr Chishimba Kambwili are having a greater impact already.
And yet history is on the side of UPND in terms of potentially wrestling power from the PF. History shows that Zambians become tired of the ruling party after ten years. Facing certain electoral defeat in the upcoming 1974 elections to an opposition coalition that would include the late Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe and Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula, first president Kenneth Kaunda forced through a one party state in 1973 after a kangaroo Constitutional Review Commission whose outcome was pre-determined. He imprisoned Mr Kapwepwe for one year during the commission to prevent him effectively campaigning against the moves to introduce a one party state. Over a hundred leaders of Mr Kapwepwe’s party were also arrested in 1972.
The next 18 years under one party rule saw a decline in the Zambian economy and standards of living with a massive debt that was 240% of GDP by 1991. There was no one to oppose the ruling United National Independence Party (UNIP) that became drunk with power and imagined themselves indestructible as they chanted slogans that whoever touches UNIP would be burned by fire.
Fast forward to 31st October 1991 and the elections of that day kicked out UNIP and handed the MMD a 75% resounding landslide victory. The MMD started well and I believe to this day that the first Cabinet under second President Frederick JT Chiluba that comprised the likes of Levy P. Mwanawasa, Dipak Patel, Simon Zukas, Emmanuel Kasonde, Eric Silwamba, etc., was the best that Zambia has ever had in its history. There was a real sense of hope in 1991 that Zambia would be turned around and made very prosperous.
Sadly, Zambia’s path to real prosperity under MMD was curtailed by greed and corruption, notwithstanding the many good things MMD did for this country to reverse the huge economic, social and political decline under UNIP. Despite starting well, the MMD fell prey to the same arrogance of power that UNIP had for 18 years.
After ten years of MMD rule in 2001, the people of Zambia were ready to kick them out. The UPND at that time was merely 3 years old but making such a powerful impact under their late president Anderson K. Mazoka. The 2001 elections saw the MMD lose 71% support from Zambians as Mr Mwanawasa was elected by only 29% of the vote, the worst results of any President in Zambia’s history with Mr Mazoka garnering 27%.
If any of the next six candidates on the results list – Christon Tembo (13%), Tilyenji Kaunda (10%), Godfrey Miyanda (8%), Benjamin Y. Mwila (5%), Michael C. Sata (3%) or Nevers S. Mumba (2%) – had joined forces with Mr Mazoka, or if the opposition had backed one candidate, we would be talking a different story today.
A combination of Chiluba’s electoral dribbling, fragmented opposition and confusion among the electorate on who to back out of eleven candidates gave the MMD a lifeline that enabled them rule for another ten years. Mr Mwanawasa turned out to be an unlikely hero to many Zambians by actively fighting corruption and bringing back integrity to the office of President. He also benefited from the foundation Mr Chiluba laid of a liberalised economy, HIPC preparations and reversing the disastrous UNIP policies.
This gave Mr Mwanawasa a second term in 2006 as he comfortably won the elections. The fourth MMD term was finished by Mr Rupiah Bwezani Banda after the untimely death of Mr Mwanawasa in 2008. By this time, Mr Michael Chilufya Sata and the PF were in the ascendancy. Mr Sata was an extremely effective opposition leader and proved to be very politically astute by coming within 4 percentage points of winning the 2008 presidential by-election.
I never imagined Mr Sata ever ruling Zambia and he did the seemingly impossible by unseating the ruling MMD under Mr Banda in 2011, despite Zambia having the best economic statistics since the final dark UNIP days in the late 1980s. The “Ten Year Rule” for Zambia had been firmly established.
If the UPND were a more effective opposition party, they would have a very good chance of winning in 2021 because of the “Ten Year Rule”. Signs that ordinary Zambians are becoming fed up with the ruling party are everywhere, but I just don’t see the UPND taking advantage of the “Ten Year Rule”. I just don’t see the UPND winning in 2021 at the moment.