Zambia – The president, his health, the possibilities, and the contenders

President Michael Sata returned home over the past week after apparently receiving treatment for an unknown health issue in Israel. While the debate over his actual state of health continues to rage unabated (amid claims of a cover up, dishonest dealings and false information), there are clear signs of movement among those ready to succeed him. It seems quite clear that certain parties and individuals in Zambia are not waiting to see whether Mr Sata survives his term in office or, if he does, whether he stands again at new elections in 2016.These are the possible developments:

1.Sata dies in office or is incapacitated

In the event of such a development Article 38 of the Zambian Constitution applies: (1) If the office of the President becomes vacant by reason of his death or resignation or by reason of his ceasing to hold office by virtue of Article 36, 37 or 88, an election to the office of the President shall be held in accordance with Article 34 within ninety days from the date of the office becoming vacant.(2)  Whenever the office of the President becomes vacant, the Vice-President or, in the absence of the Vice-President or if the Vice President is unable, by reason of physical or mental infirmity, to discharge the functions of his office, a member of the Cabinet elected by the Cabinet shall perform the functions of the office of the President until a person elected as President in accordance with Article 34 assumes office.(3)  The Vice-President or, the member of the Cabinet as the case may be, performing the functions of the office of President under clause (2) shall not dissolve the National Assembly nor, except on the advice of the Cabinet, revoke any appointment made by the President.

The pertinent issues are that fresh presidential elections must be held within 90 days of the event, that until elections the vice president acts as president unless he/she is unable to do so, but only in terms of Section 2 above (parentage restrictions do not apply), and, most importantly, that the Acting President has no power to dissolve Parliament. In practical terms, this means that should Mr Sata be unable to continue in office, Vice President Guy Scott would have to act as president until new elections are held. Parliament, however, would continue as normal until scheduled elections in 2016. Parliament can under certain circumstances be dissolved by the president, but the acting president is prevented from doing so.

2. Sata survives but opts not to stand

Normal electoral issues would apply and candidates would be free to make themselves available. Vice President Guy Scott would not be eligible to run for president due to constitutional restrictions: naturalised Zambians and those whose parents were not born in Zambia are ineligible to run for president. Mr Scott may, however, act as president in term of Article 38(2) above. In practical terms, the restriction is not relevant as Mr Scott does not want to run for president. In this scenario, no elections will be held until 2016.

Future Possibilities

In either case above there would be several contenders for the top job. The ruling Patriotic Front (PF) seems sharply divided with three names and several factions dominating the discussion. While it is not possible to rule anything out, the following figuresare the most likely challengers for the presidency.On the side of the PF, Secretary General Wynter Kabimba and current Finance Minister Alexander Chikwanda look strong, as does Mulenga Sata, Lusaka Mayor and son of the current president. Opposition parties are likely to field their usual dozen or so candidates, some of whom receive only a single vote (their own presumably), but the main opposition candidates for the presidency would currently include Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) President Nevers Mumba and United Party for National Development (UPND) leader Hakainde Hichilema. The latter is a serial presidential contender having run for the job in 2011 (500,000 votes or 18% of the vote), in 2008 (354,000 votes or 19%) and 2006 (694,000 votes or 25%).  While President Sata contested at least as many polls, he did eventually succeed – something the UPND leader is unlikely to emulate.

The general consensus is that the weakness and disarray in opposition parties makes it unlikely the PF would be unseated in the event of an election forced early due to an Article 38 situation. Its prospects would be only slightly improved in the event of an election in 2016.  It remains possible – indeed likely – that some changes in opposition ranks will precede the 2016 poll and some form of coalition remains possible as well, but none of this suggests the PF faces any increased threat at presidential and parliamentary elections. That leaves the PF contenders as favourites. While there are clearly factions at work pushing a particular candidate and agenda in the PF, it seems likely that the contest will boil down to one between Wynter Kabimba and Mulenga Sata. Alexander Chikwanda is apparently throwing his weight behind Sata Jnr. Interestingly enough, Mr Scott has publicly thrown his weight behind Mr Kabimba. While nothing is close to a certainty yet and change is a distinct possibility, the general view is that Mr Kabimba is the most likely next president of Zambia.

Comments And Summaries

 Power shifts are clearly underway and competition to succeed President Sata is heating up fast. When the president was spirited out of the country for his ‘working holiday’ in Israel, Mr Chikwanda (the usual stand-in) was reportedly not even informed and Mr Kabimba assumed the acting presidency – a development that rival factions in the PF claimed constituted illegal actions and a party ‘coup’. The party is clearly divided and its members are at each other’s throats, while Mr Sata, still the PF’s leader, remains for the moment alive if not particularly well. The finance minister may yet attempt a comeback, but the national budget is apparently out of control. Local commentators have almost universally described the government’s budget deficit estimate as fiction while public sector debt skyrockets on the back of PF populism, and these factors will tend to hamstring Mr Chikwanda.

Faltering Legacy

When Mr Sata took power in Zambia, he immediately began to implement a long-held vendetta of revenge and campaigns against real and perceived enemies who had made his life a misery while in opposition. His eccentric and vindictive campaigns were often cloaked in an anti-corruption blanket, and his determination to protect Zambians from foreign exploitation and unfair labour practices were tolerated since there did not appear to be significant implications for broad economic policy. Mr Sata was given political space – after all, foreign investors and others had clamoured for transparency and an end to corruption, and the new broom appeared to be doing that. But too much was personal, too much was pure spite. Developments including the threats to revoke licences, withdraw work permits and force foreign companies to retain staff they did not need or who broke labour laws suggested the Sata regime lost the plot completely. In order to keep populist promises it was never going to be able to keep, the PF runs the serious risk of throwing out the baby, the bathwater, the bath and bathroom. That is not going to win any votes.

Zambia was one of the bright prospects for investment and African business under previous administrations even though the copybook was blotted. Corruption, nepotism and political sideshows were frequent, but the economy and the business environment were left to grow and develop. Foreign business was encouraged. Despite his less than statesmanlike entrance, Mr Sata was allowed his whims since they appeared to coincide with the tenants of good governance, even if his actions were tinged with personal vindictiveness. Some developments suggest a regime floundering under a rising tide of populist promises and a failure to deliver to date as the global economy continues to hurt. Zambia’s investment environment faces the real danger that it can no longer be trusted. Mr Sata – whether he dies in or leaves office or is voted out of it – will be remembered as the man who promised change but allowed personal agendas, old vendettas and muddled thinking to destroy that vision and who left Zambia a worse place than he found it.

Analyst: Gary van Staden

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