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Alba Iulia
Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Does Shunning By-Elections Help or Hurt New Parties?

Columns Does Shunning By-Elections Help or Hurt New Parties?

By Dr Parkie Mbozi

WHETHER or not to participate in by-elections is one of the tough decisions that a political party, especially a newly formed one, has to make. Arguments either way can be, and have been, advanced and we have seen the manifestation of this split decision by way of some parties participating in by-elections and the opposite for others.

In this article I explore the argument for either side: participating and not participating in by-elections for opposition parties. I argue that notwithstanding the genuine and compelling reasons for absconding by-elections temporarily or as a matter of permanent position for any new party, available data suggest that a political party gains more from participating than from staying away.

A by-election is defined as an election that occurs in-between a general election to fill an elective position that falls vacant at any of the four levels: ward, council chair, parliamentary and presidential levels. Historically the bulk of the by-elections have been at ward and parliamentary levels. Since the 2016 general elections, when the position of council chair became elective, a few positions of council chairperson have fallen vacant and by-elections thereof have been held. Some of the earlier ones include the Chilanga by-election in July 2018 that was occasioned by the death of the UPND council chair Maria Malila, wife of Supreme Court judge Mumba Malila. The Kafue chairperson by-election followed in March 2019 after the resignation in November 2018 of incumbent Thomas Zulu from the UPND. On 22nd October Chilubi voters go to the polls to replace the deceased council chairperson.

The country’s history has so far experienced only two presidential by-elections, after the death of Levy Mwanawasa in 2008 and Michael Sata, six years later, in 2014, respectively. Political historians report that the first major by-elections after the 1964 independence elections occurred Simon Kapwepwe resigned from UNIP and the government in August 1971 to campion the cause the United Progressive Party (UPP). In December 1971 Kapwepwe won a by-election for the Mufulira West constituency and became his party’s sole representative in parliament The UPP later formed an alliance with Nkumbula’s ANC. It was banned in 1972 and Kapwepwe and 122 others imprisoned on allegations of being instrument of the white Rhodesian, South African and Portuguese governments, which favoured White minority rule.

By-elections were also held during the 18 years of the one-party state (1972 – 1991). However, they did not attract much attention given that all the candidates were coming from the same party, UNIP. The interest in this article is therefore by-elections that have been taking place since the re-introduction of the multi-party democracy in 1991, also known as the Third republic.

Post 1991 by-election: the first Third Republic parliamentary by-elections are associated with the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) within a few years of taking over in 1991. The reason all initial Third Republic by-elections are associated with the MMD is simple: the party went into power as a movement that took on board every political Jim and Jack who wanted to see UNIP out of power. The 18 years of one-party state and 27 years of UNIP and Kenneth Kaunda rule had to galvanized all political opportunists under one movement. Coming into the election in 1991, almost everyone was an MMD member. The composition of the National Assembly after the 1991 general elections was confirmatory of this reality: only MMD and UNIP had seats in parliament: No third force.

Not surprisingly, the first post-1991 by-elections were a result of departures from the then ruling MMD. Historians report that the MMD accelerated the pace at which people left the party by adopting some self-cleansing strategies, which included suspensions and expulsions from the party. Within two years, some MPs who left, a few of whom were once founding members of the party, were forced to leave the MMD to form the National Party (NP). This resulted in the first-ever by-election in November 1993 in which a new party was challenging the MMD. showed, however, that this opposition group had limited support. Only the most prominent politicians, four out of six, managed to get re-elected on the ticket of the new party. This increased the number of opposition parties in parliament to two but did not pose a real challenge to the MMD majority. By-elections have continued since then under both the MMD and PF governments.

The Dichotomy: whether or not to be taking part in by-elections is a split decision with arguments either way and political parties have historically been split between consistent participants and absconders. Among the older parties, MMD, UPND and the Patriotic Front (PF) have historically been regular participants, while others, such as Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD) and United National Independence Party (UNIP), have been infrequent participants in lower level by-elections while characteristically not missing presidential by-elections.

New parties, especially post-2016 ones, notably Socialist Party, Democratic Party and other no-hopers, seem to have adopted a non-participating policy. Others, notably People’s Alliance for Change (PAC) and National Democratic Focus (NDC), seem to have adopted a participating policy since inception. The NDC never missed by-elections until it went into an alliance and (unwritten) electoral pact with UPND. PAC, on the other hand, has been consistently taking the bull by its horns and adopted a never-say-die attitude despite consistent poor results in both general and by-elections. Todate PAC’s courage has not yielded a single MP or councilor since it introduced itself on the political scene just before the 2016 general elections.

So why do parties choose to ignore by-elections which, one would argue, are an opportunity to ‘test the waters’ for any new party? The first argument I have heard is that by-elections are too costly for opposition parties, more so newly formed ones. Parties that are ‘thin on resources’ would rather save them for the general election. This is a valid argument. However, a question can be raised: what chances does a political party that fails to raise funds for by-elections have to raise enough resources for a general election that follows? Isn’t it logical to begin establishing a donor base way before a general election?

Other parties have argued that it is useless to participate in by-elections because they are always rigged by the ruling party either directly or indirectly, i.e for instance where the ruling party characteristically unleashes the whole party and government machinery and resources to buy off and cajole poor voters. This argument also holds some degree of truth. However, a question can be asked: is it not a test of the opposition party’s strength and character if it can also marshal the required resources and tactics to match up to the ruling party’s and pull a surprise win?

Examples abounds where newly formed breakaway parties have taken on the ruling and parent party head-on and won. The National Party was the first breakaway party of the ruling and then mighty MMD, which was formed by Humphrey Mulemba and nine other former ministers. They were descanted with allegations of corruption and tribalism in the MMD. The NP took on the MMD in the by-election that ensued and won four of the nine seats and went on to become the third force in parliament after MMD and UNIP. Similarly, the UPND, which was the fourth major breakaway from the MMD in 1998, took on the then mighty MMD and won its first seat in Parliament after the Mazabuka by-election on 30th November 1999, hardly a year after its formation on 2nd December 1998. Post-2016, the NDC fought a hard battle and defended its Roan seat after Chishimba Kambwili’s membership to the PF was nullified by the speaker. Kambwili ‘defended’ the seat through his ‘proxy’ Charles Chishala. Contrast to Harry Kalaba who shunned the opportunity to defend his Bahati seat on his new party’s (DP) ticket during the April 2019 by-election. Instead his party seems to have adopted a non-participation position.

Sound as some of the arguments for non-participation are, evidence seems to suggest that an opposition, especially a newly formed one, benefits more from participation than from shunning by-elections. First, there are cases of some new parties that seemed to have benefitted from what is termed ‘momentum politics’ and built their fortunes from one win to another until the general election. The UPND is a classical example. The win by its ‘first-born’ MP Griffith Nangoma in Mazabuka in 1999 and in a few other by-elections in Western and North-Western provinces, seemed to have benefitted the party immensely during the 2001 general election. The party has never looked back since then to be where we know it today. Likewise, participation in the 2001 general elections within a few weeks of formation and in the 2008 presidential by-election seems to have given the PF and Sata the momentum it needed going into the 2011 general election.

Second, how a new party fares in a by-election helps it figure out how it moves forward in terms of re-alignments, alliances and electoral pacts. In recent times it can be said that the NDC’s alliances and pacts with say, the UPND, is partially informed by its recent performances in by-elections. Pundits have argued that its win in Roan was largely a result of its electoral pact with the UPND, which avoided splitting the vote and galvanized the two parties’ campaign machineries, led by UPND strongman Elisha Matambo. The UPND has been beating the NDC in by-elections, including on the Copperbelt and other Bemba-speaking areas that hitherto were predicted to be potential strongholds for NDC.

Historically it is also reported that the ANC decided to abandon its alliance with the UPP and instead opted to sign the unity accord with UNIP following poor performances in by-elections by the ANC-UPP pact candidates. Similarly, NP’s support for the candidature of Anderson Mazoka of the UPND in the 2001 general elections resulted from UPND’s good run in by-elections leading up to that election. NP had its own string of electoral failures, including that of Humphrey Mulemba, its presidential candidate in 1996 who only managed 7% of the vote, despite UNIP’s boycott.

In more ways than one, by-elections are a gauge, ‘kwiipima’ or ‘kulipima’, of how strong and competitive a new party is and where. On the contrary, missing out on by-elections means groping in the dark with all sorts imaginations going into a general election. Knowledge of where a party lost, how it lost and why it lost is valuable experience going for any opposition party hoping to do well in a general election.

I write this article with the full knowledge that Felix Mutati has just launched a new party called, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). It will be interesting to see what position his party takes. Chilubi is calling.

On a different note, what is it that mesmerizes our politicians about Zimbabwean politics such that they have to copy-and-paste party names and symbols from them: PF, MDC, punching clenched fist in the air….etc. Interesting!


  1. Why am I seeing your posts on my timeline imwe fi Lusaka times? You can’t just go offline for five months without any notice and then come back in the night to post news items.we have moved on,so stop notifying me whenever you post your stupid stories .

  2. It is too early to read a thesis especially so on a weekend. By the way, there is a difference between “zanu-pf” and “pf”. Futher more a raised fist is a well known symbol not exclusive to Zimbabwe. Go back in history you will find that it was used world over as a symbol for solidarity in the fight for equality of the black race. Meanwhile, happy weekend. I am working this weekend as is always the case the closer we get to the elections.

  3. Beautiful write up as usual Parkie. I wish you would also comment on the unnecessity of having new political party.
    You briefly mention that some parties are no hopers, but fail short to state why such plurality of political parties is a joke. Zambia currently has over 40 political parties. New ones are not helping anything at all.

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